The Sentinelese and Language Extinction

A rare picture of the Sentinelese (via Wired)

Take a moment to read about the people of the Sentinel islands in the Bay of Bengal; the North Sentinel Island in particular. Here you will find a people who truly exemplify the human spirit to whatever the hell we want, without any interference from the outside world: The Sentinelese. The Guardian explains:

The most reclusive of all are the Sentinelese, who have violently rebuffed all approaches from the outside world. According to a recent study of the tribes carried out by a team of biologists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, the indigenous islanders, often described by anthropologists as ‘pygmies’, may actually represent the first Asians – an early wave of ‘out of Africa’, who reached the Far East more than 40,000 years ago and have since evolved separately from most of the other native people of Asia, the South Seas and Australia.

The article goes on to explain that even with multiple attempts to contact the tribe, almost all have proved futile. There may be a few pictures here and there, but for the most part the Sentinelese have sent a clear message: stay the hell away. To make this point, they even killed to Indian fisherman a few years ago whose boat “accidentally drifted on to the shore of North Sentinel Island.” Some cried foul, wanting to subject them to the laws of a nearby, more “civilized” nation, but the father of one of the victims sided with the Sentinelese: his son was poaching and trespassing, he said, and how could you prosecute them anyway?

For one, it would be difficult, as no one, except the Sentinelese, know their language. The Sentinelese Language has maybe 100 speakers, perhaps more, but no one really knows. It is an unknown language, as well as endangered, and if you haven’t heard of such a thing relating to language, I highly recommend NatGeo’s Enduring Voices project with this interactive map that describes what’s happening and how we can save the knowledge and culture of over 7,000 languages spoken on this earth. Perhaps buried within them is the perfect secret for how to easily conjugate past participles and conjunctives! But really, saving them makes sense, and here’s why:

Language defines a culture, through the people who speak it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language. Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations, but no written forms. With the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost.

Much of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. Indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years often have profound insights into local lands, plants, animals, and ecosystems—many still undocumented by science. Studying indigenous languages therefore benefits environmental understanding and conservation efforts.

For more on the Sentinelese and their language, see Survival International’s “The most isolated tribe in the world?” Stay hidden, guys!