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A Language to Die For

Today, some hidden places still exist where tribes and communities are totally isolated from the outside world. There is very little that is known about them, as far as how their society is organized, their traditions, beliefs, diet, and of course, their languages.

Within this group of almost unknown communities there is an extreme case: the small Northern Sentinel Island, located in the Andaman archipelago within the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. But, what is it that makes this group of islanders so particular? Well, since the island became known, its inhabitants have left a very clear message from the beginning: no one from outside the island is welcome. Whoever steps on its beautiful beaches will immediately receive the death penalty, without words or warnings. This is why it is totally forbidden by the Indian government to approach the island, not only because of the risk of certain death, but also because any kind of disease, including a simple flu brought from outside, could kill its entire population.

The best thing then is to leave them alone. But, what do we really about them? It is estimated that these natives arrived on the island from Africa approximately 50,000 years ago, maintaining their ethnic origin and culture intact since then. It is known that they live from hunting, fishing and gathering fruits, but their traditions and way of life are totally unknown. Knowing their language could be the key to understanding the evolution of other indigenous languages. It is the hard figurine to get for linguistics experts and anthropologists. But they know that the price for wanting to research is a sure death.

Northern Sentinel made the news recently when a young American missionary dared to disembark illegally on the island to teach the word of God to the Sentinelese, but as soon as he reached the beach, the natives welcomed him with a shower of poisoned arrows instead of words.

As far as it is known, only one man, an anthropologist, was able to interact with the islanders and lived to tell the story. His trick was to arrive with gifts, never stepping on the island but instead staying in the water where he could hardly stand, and always stepping back when the Sentinelese were angry or seemed threatening. Despite these close encounters, this anthropologist could not find out much about them either. So its culture and even the number of inhabitants on the island remains a mystery, and of course, we do not have a translator for their language. So, maybe it’s really best to leave them alone, and not die trying!