The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. News coverage of Boa Senior’s death noted that she had survived the 2004 tsunami – an event that was reportedly foreseen by tribe elders – along with the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers. The linguist Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Senior for many years, said: ‘After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.’
Tales of language extinction are invariably tragic. But why, exactly? Aka-Bo, like many other extinct languages, did not make a difference to the lives of the vast majority of people. Yet the sense that we lose something valuable when languages die is familiar. Just as familiar, though, is the view that preserving minority languages is a waste of time and resources. This article attempts to make sense of these conflicting attitudes.