What do we know about the Sentinelese language?

Uncontacted peoples — people groups who have never made sustained contact with neighbouring communities, let alone the outside world in general. These people groups are often indigenous, and many of them are scattered in South America and the island of Papua. Some 100 of them exist, but here, we will focus on one of them.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lies North Sentinel Island. With its dense vegetation surrounded by a sandy beach, one might think no one lives on it. But they would be wrong. There, lives perhaps what is probably the most well-known uncontacted people group — the Sentinelese. These form one of the six indigenous (and reclusive) people groups on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but the Sentinelese have consistently refused interaction with the outside world, often displaying hostility towards attempts to make first contact.

With this, the Sentinelese people are surrounded by an air of mystery — what is their culture like, or more relevant here, what language do they speak? With many observations made from helicopters or airplanes, no one really knows what their language sounds like. In fact, no one even knows exactly how many Sentinelese there are. While estimates range from 50 to 400, making a comprehensive census of the Sentinelese has never quite been done.

So, with almost no data to work with, how would anthropologists or linguists approach the mystery of the Sentinelese? The first intuitive approach is to look at distance. With North Sentinel Island’s proximity to the other Andaman islands, we might expect Sentinelese resemble the languages spoken there. These languages include the Onge, Jarawa, and the Great Andamanese languages. Based on what little is known about similarities in culture and technology and their geographical proximity, linguists and anthropologists narrowed this starting point to the Onge and Jarawa languages.

In fact, investigating this has been done by anthropologists like T. N. Pandit from 1967 to 1991, with governors, armed forces, and naval personnel, as an attempt to establish friendly contact with the Sentinelese. Note that travel within three nautical miles of North Sentinel Island was prohibited by the Indian government in 1956. In some of his visits, Pandit brought over some Onge speakers to the island to attempt communication with the Sentinelese. However, this ended in failure, and Pandit reported one occasion where the Sentinelese were offended by the Onge. Other reports also suggested similar outcomes when establishing communication between Jarawa speakers and the Sentinelese.

With two dead ends produced from these communication attempts, all leads have effectively been exhausted. Or have they? With probably several millennia in isolation, maybe it is time to speculate further back in their probable history. From analysing the genetics of the Onge and the Andamanese, studies found that the Andamanese are more closely related to Southeast Asians (as well as Melanesians and some Southeast Asian peoples) than they are to present-day South Asians. Should we extend this genetic relationship to the Sentinelese, we could expect the languages the Sentinelese speak to perhaps resemble those spoken in Melanesia. But given this isolation, this possible lead may be sketchy at best, but may give yet another starting point, informed by genetics and human migration instead of geographic and cultural proximity.

However, it is quite unlikely data would be gathered to test this hypothesis. The Sentinelese have consistently resisted and refused contact with the outside world, and that is likely to stay. From our end, making first contact would expose the Sentinelese to various diseases they lack immunity to, leading to a potential wipeout of the tribe. This is the human cost that comes with opening the Pandora’s box that is the Sentinelese language. It is best for us to respect this refusal, and hope they will continue to survive well into the future.

Summary

What we know about the Sentinelese language is quite restricted, owing to the lack of data from such isolation and failed contact attempts. Nevertheless, it is understood that Sentinelese is not intelligible with Jarawa and Onge, and might be its own special branch in the language family tree. Genetics may point towards other languages like those spoken in Melanesia, although those might be stretching quite a bit. However, further attempts to communicate could potentially endanger the Sentinelese, and it is best to respect their refusal to open up to outsiders.

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