The Andamanese languages are the indigenous languages of the Andaman Islands, spoken by the Andamanese Negritos. There are two clear families of Andamanese languages, Great Andamanese and Ongan, as well as Sentinelese, which is unknown and therefore at present unclassifiable.
The indigenous Andamanese people have lived on the islands for thousands of years. Although the existence of the islands and their inhabitants was long known to maritime powers and traders of the South– and Southeast–Asia region, contact with these peoples was highly sporadic and very often hostile; as a result, almost nothing is recorded of them or their languages until the mid-18th century. From the 1860s onwards, the setting up of a permanent British penal colony and the subsequent arrival of immigrant settlers and indentured labourers mainly from the Indian subcontinent brought the first sustained impacts upon these societies, particularly among the Great Andamanese groups.
By the beginning of the 20th century most of these populations were greatly reduced in numbers, and the various linguistic and tribal divisions among the Great Andamanese effectively ceased to exist, despite a census of the time still classifying the groups as separate. Their linguistic diversity also suffered as the surviving populations intermingled with one another, and some also intermarried with Karen (Burmese) and Indian settlers.
By the latter part of the 20th century the majority of Great Andamanese languages had become extinct.
At the start of the 21st century only about 50 or so individuals of Great Andamanese descent remained, resettled to a single small island (Strait I.); about half of these speak what may be considered a modified version (or creole) of Great Andamanese, based mainly on Aka-Jeru. This modified version has been called "Present Great Andamanese" by some scholars, but also may be referred to simply as "Jero" or "Great Andamanese". Hindi increasingly serves as their primary language, and is the only language for around half of them.
The Ongan languages survive mainly because of the greater isolation of the peoples who speak them. This isolation has been reinforced by an outright hostility towards outsiders and extreme reluctance to engage in contact with them by South Andamanese tribes, particularly the Sentinelese and Jarawa. The Sentinelese have been so resistant that their language remains entirely unknown to outsiders.
The Andamanese languages are agglutinative languages, with an extensive prefix and suffix system. They have a distinctive noun class system based largely on body parts, in which every noun and adjective may take a prefix according to which body part it is associated with (on the basis of shape, or functional association). Thus, for instance, the "aka-" at the beginning of the Great Andamanese languages' names is a prefix for objects related to the tongue. (See Great Andamanese languages for examples.) Terms for body parts are inalienably possessed, requiring a possessive adjective prefix to complete them, so one cannot say "head" alone, but only "my, or his, or your, etc. head".
The basic pronouns are almost identical throughout the Great Andamanese languages; Aka-Bea will serve as a representative example (pronouns given in their basic prefixal forms):
The Ongan pronouns are rather different; Önge is cited here:
Judging from the available sources, the Andamanese languages have only two cardinal numbers: one and two and their entire numerical lexicon is one, two, one more, some more, and all.
The Andaman languages fall into two clear families,Great Andamanese: Spoken by the Great Andamanese people; Aka-Jeru, had 36 speakers in 1997 who are bilingual in Hindi.
Ongan: Two languages spoken by 300 people, mostly monolingual.
In addition, there is the unattested languageSentinelese; likely at least 50 speakers, and perhaps up towards 250 (the population of the Sentinelese people is unknown).
These have frequently been assumed to be related. However, the similarities between Great Andamanese and Ongan are so far mainly of a typological morphological nature, with little demonstrated common vocabulary. As a result, even long-range researchers such as Joseph Greenberg have expressed doubts as to the validity of Andamanese as a family.
Blevins (2007) summarizes,
a relationship between Jarawa and Onge and languages of the Great Andaman group is not widely accepted. Radcliffe-Brown (1914:40) found only seven potential cognates between Onge and Bea/Jeru, and noted that the difference between Onge and the Great Andaman languages "is such that it would not be possible from consideration of the vocabulary alone to prove that they belonged to the same language stock." [...] Abbi (2006:93) is agnostic, stating that "current linguistic analysis does not, with any certainty, indicate any genetic relationship between Great Andamanese and the other two languages." The only positive evidence offered in support of this relationship is a listing of 17 word pairs as proposed cognates in Manoharan (1989:16667). There are several problems with Manoharan's proposal [such as semantic mismatches and failing to identify loans. ...] Given evidence that shows these languages have been in contact, and the scarcity of data available at present on Great Andaman languages, there remains no persuasive evidence of a family relationship between Jarawa-Onge and the Great Andaman languages. [...] Greenberg (1971:810) is unconvinced of the relation between Great Andaman and Onge-Jarawa, agreeing with Radcliffe-Brown (1914) that "
there are very few vocabulary resemblances between this language [Onge] and those of Great Andaman and the only real point of contact is typological.
A few citations from Onge have been included in the general Indo-Pacific vocabulary, but both its special relationship to the languages of the rest of the Andamans and its assignment to Indo-Pacific must be considered highly provisional."
As alluded to in this quotation, Greenberg proposed that the Great Andamanese are related to western Papuan languages as members of a phylum he called Indo-Pacific, but this is not generally accepted by other linguists. Stephen Wurm states that the lexical similarities between Great Andamanese and the West Papuan and certain languages of Timor "are quite striking and amount to virtual formal identity […] in a number of instances", but considers this to be due to a linguistic substratum rather than a direct relationship. Blevins (2007) proposes that the Ongan languages are related to Austronesian in an Austronesian–Ongan family, for which she has attempted to establish regular sound correspondences.