The Andamanese Language Family (II)
by George Weber

A contribution to the centenary of M.V. Portman's work


Let us now describe a few remarkable features of the Andamanese languages.

It is often stated that the Andamanese have only two cardinal numbers: in Aka-Bea this was uba-tul ("one") and ikpor ("two"). Beyond that they had arduru ("several"), jegchau ("many"/human) jibaba ("very many"/human), ubaba ("very many"/non-human), atubaba ("countless"/human) and otubaba ("countless"/non-human). This is correct as far as it goes but it is not the whole story. The daily life of a simple hunter-gatherer society rarely needed counting beyond two, but if necessary, the Andamanese could express higher numbers. In this the Great Andamanese (nothing of the sort is known from the Onge-Jarawa) went beyond words by touching the tip of their nose with the tip of each finger, using both hands and starting with the little finger and saying an-ka ("and then") each time, except for the first two when uba-tul and ikpor was said. This continued until the number they wanted to express had been reached when they finished by saying arduru (meaning here: "that’s all"). Portman lists numerals up to "five" in four southern languages but clearly limits their meaning by saying that "three" really meant "one more", "four" meant "some more" and "five" meant "all." These expressions of Andamanese higher mathematics have nevertheless found their way into some otherwise reliable works of reference as genuine numerals.















re paur

three ("one more")





four ("some more")





five ("all")






The use of sign language in Andamanese was not limited to fingers in numerals. Play-acting often took the place of conventional verbal communications, an aspect of Andamanese that could be of interest to those concerned with the origins of language. There is a good description in Portman’s book (10) of how two Aka-Bea guides gave warning of nearby Jarawa to a British explorer in 1863, thereby providing the earliest known reference to that tribe:

Jacko pointed at my heart and represented the act of a savage aiming at me with his bow and arrow piercing my heart and my falling wounded, closing my eyes and expiring. Topsy also pathetically enacted the death scene, and both waved their hands deprecatingly in the direction disapproved of, and entreated me not to proceed further but to return...

No doubt in this case conventional inability to understand each other’s language forced the two guides to use play acting in order to make their point. Among Andamanese, returning successful hunters often told their tale not in words but by acting out the scenes of the hunt for the delectation of the spectators. Among Onge, sign language and play-acting seems to be far less common.

Another highly peculiar aspect of the Andamanese languages is the treatment of the words for "mother" and "father." They do not exist, at least not in the way we would expect them to exist. In traditional Andamanese society, relative age was the most important single factor determining status. Children were dearly beloved but many were almost routinely adopted away by their biological parents between the age 5 to 7. They went to couples in other friendly groups while the original parents in turn adopted other parents’ children. Some social contacts between biological parents and their children were usually kept through visits and the exchange of presents but few children ever returned to their original parents. Blood ties did not interest the Andamanese much and there was no clan system. The adoptive system encouraged close links between local groups but reduced the role of the biological parents. That this is reflected in the language speaks for the antiquity of the system. In the place of specific words for "mother" and "father," general honorifics were used. In Aka-Jeru t'a-mimi ("my mother") or aka-mimi ("his mother") as well as t'a-mai ("my father") or aka-mai ("his father") show how the honorifics mimi ("Lady" or "Madam") and maia ("Sir") were used. T'a-mimi aka-mai meant "my mother's father." Other Andamanese languages used different honorific terms but the system behind them was the same everywhere. Mimi Oka simply meant "Mrs. Oka" and it tells us that Oka was older than the person addressing her. Oka aka-mai meant "Oka's father," aka-mai Oka "his father Oka." However, Prof. Ebert has drawn attention to a possibility that none of the main sources on the Andamanese languages seems to have considered: it is indeed conceivable that it is not honorifics that were being used for "mother" and "father" in Andamanese but the original words for "mother" and "father" that have instead been turned into general honorifics. According to Prof. Ebert, this has happend widely in south and southeast Asia. If so, the Andamanese would only have gone a little further in the process than their neighbours.

The Andamanese languages have very limited vocabularies that are highly specialised in parts. The Andamanese have a extensive vocabulary for those items in life that are of interest to them. For example, there are a dozen words covering fruit from its earliest unripe stage through peak ripeness to rottenness. These are specialised words without the general meanings that some have in their English translation. Portman has recorded one such list in Aka-Bea:

1) ot-dereka ("small"), 2) chimiti ("sour"), 3) putungaij ("black"), 4) cheba-da ("hard"), 5) telebich ("seed not formed"), 6)gad and 7) gama (both without English equivalent), 8) tela ("half ripe"), 9) munukel ("ripe"), 10) roicha-da ("riper"), 11) ot-yob-da ("soft") and 12) chauru-re ("rotten").

On the other hand, there are very few words indeed for abstract ideas or concepts.

The following gives a few sample words.


















































to sleep


mami –

mami –

moli –


moli –


– omo


to die


oko-li –

auko-li –

om-pil –

am-pil –

om-pil –




to cry


teki –

teki –

war –

yar –

– war –




to walk


nao –

noao –

chole –

chole –

chole –




to finish


ar-lu –

ar-lika –

ar-liwe –

ra-liwe –

– a-liwa –





Andamanese pronunciation and phonetics are difficult fields. The problem started with the very first word list ever assembled on an Andamanese language: naval surveyor Colebrooke in 1790 jotted down what he heard exactly how he heard it. His list remained something of a mystery for a century; it did not seem to correspond to any known language, Andamanese or otherwise. It was Portman who discovered a century later that the list produced, of all things, Jarawa words – if pronounced in an intensely nasal Scottish accent! The post-Colebrooke researchers were more professional but each thought it necessary to concoct his own system of phonetic notation while deprecating earlier systems. As a result, we are left with a number of incompatible notations. In this article we have left out the multitude of accents and characters used by the various sources as more confusing than helpful and hope that few readers will need to know the supposedly precise pronunciation of the Andamanese words given here.

Andamanese grammar reflects the aboriginal view that the universe is subordinate to and created for the benefit of humanity, i.e. the Negritos. The parts of the human body reflect the world which world-view is in turn is reflected in the grammar. A remarkable system of nominal classification based on parts of the human body is indeed one of the few clear points of contact between the Great Andamanese and the Onge-Jarawa languages, speaking for its antiquity. The word order follows the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) pattern. All members of the family are of the agglutinative type which means, in this case, that root words are modulated by adding affixes

M.V. Portman distinguished five groups of roots in five Great Andamanese languages (Aka-Bea, Akar-Bale, Puchikwar, Oko-Juwoi and Aka-Kol) (11): Human (names of parts of the human body), non-human (names of non-human animate and inanimate objects), functional, pronominal and miscellaneous (post-positions, adverbs, conjunctions, exclamations, proper names)

At the centre of the Andamanese language is a complex system of affixes which are added to the root words in front, the middle or the back:

1. prefixes to indicate physical properties such as gender, length, flexibility, roundness, etc

2. infixes (only in Onge and Aka-Jeru) to mark singular/plural

3. suffixes to mark grammatical functions and relationships.

There is no other language in Asia with a system like that of the Andamanese. Much of its detailed working remains unclear and ill-understood to this day. As one despairing linguist noted, "the process of agglutinating remains unaccountable." The choice of category depends on the properties of the root in question as perceived by the Andamanese – and their perception is often utterly impenetrable to us. Portman asked the Andamanese themselves about their ways of classifying nouns. The answers he received were less than satisfying. He reports one case:

The man had some difficulty in explaining himself, and it is evident that the reasons for the Gender classification have been lost.

Before we judge the poor man harshly for his ignorance, we should remember that we, too, would not know, for example, why in French "fork" and "spoon" are feminine while "knife" is masculine or why the same words in German are feminine, masculine and neutral, respectively. In most languages, the principles behind their noun classification are simply unknown, to the users as well as science.

The details differ from language to language and from 5 to 11 human body prefixes have been described.


ab- (pl. at-)

Used for the body, back, spine, thighs, lap, shins, calves, groin, elbows, forearms, upper arms, knees, hollow of knees, ribs, navel, belly.

ar- (pl. arat-)

Used for legs, hip, loin, tailbone, rectum, urine, bladder, mesentery, large intestine, testicles, buttocks.

aka- (pl. akat-)

Used for the mouth, palate, chin, lips, lip-hairs, tongue, gullet, throat, windpipe, uvula, jaw-bone, beard, collar-bones, sides, saliva, breath.

ig-/i- (pl. i-/iti-)

Used for the eyes, eyelashes, eyelids, eyebrows, gums, face, forehead, ears, nose, cheeks, whiskers, temples, teeth, shoulders, arms, upper arms, forearms, biceps of upper arms, breasts, nipples, tears.

ong- (pl. oiot-)

Used for the hands, the various fingers, palms, soles of foot, wrists, knuckles, finger and toe nails, the various toes, feet, heels, ankles, kidneys, peritoneum, small intestine.
This prefix was also involved in counting and numbering (fingers!) which we discuss elsewhere in this article.

ot- (otot-)

Used for the heart, head, neck, chest, brain, back part of the head, nape, scalp, lung, phlegm, prostate, the seat of affections and passions (for the Andamanese: bosom and heart)

Why the prefix (also known as akar-, a-, aukau- or oko- in other Great Andamanese languages) among many other things also came to mean "language" is fairly obvious from the list of root words it attaches to. The Great Andamanese tribes were groups of people united by a common language rather than organised units in the conventional sense of the word "tribe." The use of this prefix does indeed point out a fact of Great Andamanese tribal life: Aka-Bea-da means nothing more than "people who speak the Bea language."



Used for the back.


Used for the navel.


Used for the mouth, throat, tongue, breath, belly.


Used for the head, lips, shoulders, eyes, nose, teeth, face, cheeks, forehead.


Used for hands, elbows, forearms, legs, thighs, knees, waist, skin, bones, veins.


Used for the palms, fingers, feet, toes, wrists, heels.




Used for the knees, feet, nails, forearms, fingers, cheeks, head, hair.


Used for the eyes, eyebrows, ears, chin, facial hair, armpit, back, backbone, bones, buttocks, thighs, calves,


Used for the teeth, chests, collarbones, neck, elbows, hands, stomach




Used for the head, hair, neck, skull, spine, fingers, fists, wrists.


Used for the mouth, lip, tongue, teeth, belly, buttock.


Used for the chin, cheeks, elbows, forelegs, calves, thighs


Used for the eyes, eye-lashes, brows, forehead


Used for legs, feet, toes, ankles


The are a large number of other prefixes conveying a wide variety of meaning. Here are just a few samples:

In Aka-Bea the prefix en- intensifies or alters the meaning of the root: yabnga ("to speak") turns into en-yabnga ("to make someone acquainted").

In Aka-Jeru the prefixes era-/e- add distance, literally and figuratively: e-lobun ("long"), era-lobun ("distant"), era-meo ("anchor"), e-tire ("offspring"), era-tire ("young offshoots of a tree"), e-tomo ("flesh, muscle") and era-tomo ("buttock").

In Onge the prefix i- denotes the part, quality, state or action of a dependent object, person or thing while ono- stands for the head or its associated parts: i-dane ("the bone of any part"), ono-dane ("skull"), en-i-bi-le (a stretched part of the body, "arm"), ono-bi (the ‘head’ of the arm, "hand"), ono-bo-tabe (the ‘head’ of the hand, "fingers"), ono-lage (the ‘head’ of the leg, "knee").

Independent personal pronouns also exist:




1st person

th-/t-: thiobi ("I am")

m- (+an, en, oin, etc): maniobe ("we are")

2nd person

n-: niobe ("you are")

n- (+ol, al, el, il, etc): nol-e-mae toopholo ("you have not made")

3rd person

none or d-: u-ben-om ("he sleeps")

n-/du-n-: dunu-khe-bekha ("they are")
nu-ben-om ("they sleep")




1st person

ma-/e-: ma-omo-kabe ("I sleep")
e-ti-gira-be ("Ieat")

equi-: equi omo-kabe ("we sleep")

2nd person

ni-: ni-omo-kabe ("you sleep")

ni-yoga: ni-yoga omo-kabe ("you sleep")

3rd person

none or gi-: gi-omo-kabe ("he sleeps")
enai jabe ("he is good")

gi-yoga/ono-: gi-yoga omo-kabe ("they sleep")
ono-tot-ai-jabe ("they are good")


Pronominal prefixes can also be attached as possessive personal pronouns to noun roots as in Aka-Jeru th-amai ("my father"), n-amai ("your father"), men-amai ("our father").

In their stand-alone form personal pronouns look as follows:










1st pers. si.









2nd pers. si.









3rd pers. si.









1st pers. pl.









2nd pers. pl.









3rd pers. pl.










There are also a number of neutral affixes. Oddly enough, the two mutually hostile Aka-Bea and Jarawa in southern Great Andaman with their only distantly related languages are the two tribes most particular about neutral affixes: Aka-Bea used the prefix aka- and the suffix -da with every noun while Jarawa begins every sentence with the prefix ya-. Jarawa also has a neutral noun suffix -wa and an adjectival suffix -ga. These have no known meaning. Neither Onge nor the north Andamanese languages have these linguistic flourishes.

We have already mentioned that functional infixes are known only from Onge and Aka-Jeru where they mark either plurals (along with suffixes that do the same) or negatives. It is noticeable that Onge is stricter about the use of infixes, not always providing suffix alternatives.




plural infix

-ne-, -nun-


alternative suffix

-ne, -ukhe

infix denoting negatives

-phu-, -pho-

-ebogil-, -egi- (singular)
-otot- (plural)

alternative suffix



So-called euphonic or integrative infixes are known from all Andamanese languages. They are not known to have a meaning and merely seem to facilitate pronunciation. In Aka-Jeru bokhori ("she-goat") + uthire ("child") gives bokhori-th-uthire ("kid"). In Aka-Bea kuk-l-ar-beringa (heart+place+good, "happy") and in Onge ebo-t-ati (eye+skin, "eyelids") are similarly formed. In northern Andamanese -t-/-th- is used exclusively, in Aka-Bea -l- is commonly and -t- rarely and in Onge -t- commonly and -l- rarely used in this function.

Most suffixes fulfil relatively well-defined grammatical functions and so are less difficult to understand than the prefixes.

Portman in his linguistic work (11) gives a very brief and somewhat confused description of noun and verbal suffixes limited to Aka-Bea "for convenience sake" in one place and a detailed list of suffixes in five southern Great Andamanese languages but without any attached commentary in another. It looks as if the printer’s devil has been active in his work there. Basu on the other hand gives a list of suffixes only for Aka-Jeru, Jarawa and Onge. The two lists are not easily reconciled which is why we present them separately here.







Present and future



-kan, -ke

-che, -chine




-te, -ka, -kate

-ya, -ye




-re, yate, -iate

-’t, -et, -nga

-nga, -nen

-chikan, -nen

-an, -wan

Noun suffix


-da (often omitted)



-che, -le



-o, -au









Honorific suffix
(with proper names)

-la, -lola








ne- (prefix)

ne- (prefix)

Negative imperative

















-di, -ki, -ke



-bi-, -bik-


-li, -gai

Dative (to, near)

-re-, -ce, -kak



Instrumental (by, with)



-ga, -ba

Ablative (from)

-cot, -tat


Locative (in, on)

-il, -ek



Genitive (whose)



-ijai, -ko

The genitive often dispenses with the suffix altogether, making it recognisable only through word order. Bloch and Basu (14) also note that personal pronouns in Aka-Jeru sometimes take -io to form the pronominal adjectives but Basu adds testily that "their syntactical uses are sometimes very peculiar." The Andamanese suffixes are easier to understand than the prefixes but they are not plain sailing.

Verbal suffixes with noun roots produce denominative verbs such as the Onge equ-qwe-be ("we go hunting pigs") or inge-ce-be ("drink water"). In Onge and Jarawa the use of verbal suffixes is anything but clear. To express the present continuous a suffix -jo or -njo is used in positive and -otatek in negative verbs. To denote other senses, Onge uses words like -aki-bo-ki for completed actions, kate-kataote for past happenings before the final suffix -be. Jarawa positive verbs take the suffixes -ago (present), -ba (perfect) and -aka (future) while negative verbs always take the final suffix -ma or -ama.

Word cumulation and compounding is common in all Andamanese languages. One example from Onge has to suffice: a blind man is called rulu-tot-bat from therulu ("eyes") and bat ("night").

Syntax expresses both nexus and junction by the use of affixes, compounding and word order. Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) dominates in all Andamanese languages but Andamanese would not be Andamanese if there were no inexplicable deviations from the standard to show how many gaps there still are in the knowledge of these languages.

The Onge sentence ekwakobelatellebegi ("they came running") in Onge is assembled as follows:

ekw- -akobela -te -lle -be -gi
they" "run" direction plural competitive indicative

prefix verbal root suffix suffix suffix indicator or
(only used (indicates interrogative
in plural) tense, aspect

M.V. Portman has thoughtfully preserved the "Legend of first Introduction of Fire" of five tribes for us, with the comment that he thought it showed well the jerky manner of Andamanese story telling. The legend (here in Aka-Bea) will give readers a suitably enigmatic ending to this exposition of one of the world’s most enigmatic people and languages.

Taul-l’oko-tima -len Puluga-la mami-ka. Luratut-la chapa
(name of a place) in God was sleeping (a bird) fire

tap-nga omo-re. Chapa-la Puluga-la pugat-ka. Puluga-la boi-ka,
stealing brought. Fire God burnt. God woke up,

Puluga-la chapa eni-ka. A ik chapa- -lik Luratut
God fire seized. He taking fire by (a bird)

l’ot-pugari-re. Jek Luratut-la eni-ka. A i-Tar-cheker
burnt. At once (a bird) took. He (another bird, kingfisher) bird

l’ot-pugari-re Wota-Emi baraij-len, Chaoga-tabanga oko-dal-re.
burnt (name of a place) village-in the ancestors lit fires.

the Tomo-lola.

Freely translated: God was sleeping at a place called Taul-l’oko-tima when the bird Luratut came to steal the fire. The fire burnt God who woke up, took the fire back and burnt Luratut with it. Then Luratut took the fire and burnt another bird at Wota-Emi village where the Andamanese who lived in former ages used it to light their own fires.

© 1998, George Weber, Switzerland



The author is most grateful to Prof. Karin Ebert of Zürich University, Dr. Niclas Burenhult of Lund University and Judy and Geoffrey Kingscott of Praetorius Ltd, Nottingham, for their helpful comments, suggestions, information and general support. Needless to say, the author retains sole responsibility for any errors and anything else that may annoy the reader.

Additional Information, Comments

The Andaman Association maintains a Web-site under where some illustrated chapters of the author’s forthcoming book on the Andamanese Negrito may be viewed. A 1500-title bibliography is available from the author who may also be contacted directly via E-mail under . Any comments and questions are welcome.


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