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The Endangered Zone

The Language Nerd is in Ethiopia! This is the first in a series on Ethiopian linguistics. The introduction is here. These posts are not in the usual q-and-a style, because I don’t exactly have a backlog of Ethiopian linguistics questions. But by gum, if you’ve got an Ethiopian linguistics question, then send it in. double-time!


Let’s talk about plants.

Let’s talk, specifically, about Dioscorea abyssinica and Dioscorea schimperiana. These guys:

Sup. (Photos used with permission from Zelealem Leyew .)

Given the choice, which of these two would you snack on? I’ll warn you, only one is a good choice.

How about if I tell you that in English, the names of these plants are “yam” and, uh, also “yam”? Does that help? No?

Well, then, how about if I tell you that in Shinasha, the first plant is called angga. which is just a name-name. while the second one is called sewatɨ-mm-atekiya. roughly translated as “it destroyed seven households”?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

This is ethnobotany, the place where the world of plants and the world of linguistics coincide. At Addis Ababa University, it’s the purview of Dr. Zelealem Leyew. author of (get ready, it’s a mouthful) Wild Plant Nomenclature and Traditional Botanical Knowledge among Three Ethnological Groups in Northwestern Ethiopia. He visited three groups, the Gumuz, the Awi, and the Shinasha, and, as he puts it, went on some pretty pleasant long walks in the woods.

He took along an assistant from the university’s herbarium, to cut up samples and match bits to scientific names, and a native speaker of the various languages, often a healer, to give the names in their languages and explain how they’re used. Previous Ethiopian researchers, and plenty of current ones around the world, bring the first but leave the second. This, he says, is “ethnobotany without the ‘ethno’” – whereas he prefers to write ETHNO in capital letters.

You need two things to get clear, informative names – a culture that interacts with plants every day, and not too much time. English has neither. Our plant names probably had meaning once, but it’s hard to remember that “pine ” may have meant something about sticky pitch a couple thousand years ago, or that “tulip ” comes from the Turkish for “turban,” based on the shape (tulips were Turkish long before they were Dutch). And while gardeners may have modern nicknames for plants, not enough of our society interacts with plants often enough for these to have an impact.

The Gumuz people have one of the two. They’ve been in the area longest, and use plants constantly, for all sorts of reasons. So they have enormous knowledge, but their names are old enough that some of the original meanings have been forgotten, and now they’re “just names.” 78% of their names have no more obvious meaning to them than “tomato” does to an English speaker.*

But the Awi and the Shinasha are more recent arrivals, so their names are more recent coinages, and plenty of them have meanings that are clear and immediate.

Bridelia micrantha. a tree with wide, spreading leaves that birds of prey tend to hide in before they swoop down on unsuspecting hens, is derka-dɨngwi. “chickenkiller,” to the Awi. Sida urens. a briar-type plant, is the Shinasha’s semi-detsa. “catcher of cloth.” And though you may know them solely as grouchy carnivores, the Awi have noticed hyenas chilling under the Aframomum polyanthum and gnawing on its roots – so it s ‘ɨɣwɨy-zɨnǰibɨla. “hyena’s ginger.” Probably don’t keep your chickens under that tree, either.

Chickenkiller. (Photo credit: JMK. via )

This sort of knowledge is doubly endangered. The forests of Ethiopia are being depleted, so the plants themselves are vanishing, and equally urgent, the languages are disappearing. Kids are moving to cities, learning Amharic, and never really picking up all the nuances of the plants in their old hometowns. Dr. Zelealem** himself grew up with more understanding of the shapes and uses of the plants around him then he sees in his nieces and nephews – he says the next generation is liable to have exactly “one plant name in the foreseeable future, that is, eucalyptus tree.” Personal names and names of places may stick around in people’s minds, but when it comes to plants, when they’re lost, they’re lost.

This is one reason people get into documenting endangered languages. It’s hardly a linguist’s job to go pester the next generation and force them to learn about trees if they don’t want to. But it can absolutely be a linguist’s job to go write down what’s still known and make sure that knowledge is accessible to other researchers – and to any next-gen kids that are interested.

This is a utilitarian approach; we need to document endangered languages because they hold information that no other language does, and we should catch it before they vanish.

There’s also the specifically linguistic utilitarian approach. Long-lost languages sometimes had unique bits of grammar or ways to put together words, and if we didn’t have records, we wouldn’t know that a language could work that way. If you think a preposition always comes before the noun, is that really because it absolutely must be that way in every language, or is it because you only know European languages?***

And then there’s the human side of it. Many groups want a linguist to come over and record their words and grammar, and sometimes to help create an orthography if the language hasn’t been written yet. It’s a part of identity, and makes it easier to share and pass on their culture. More than tidbits of knowledge, a whole world outlook is embedded in a language. “If a language dies without being documented,” says Dr. Zelealem, “that is the saddest story.”

So say you’re convinced. You want in. You’re gonna find an endangered language and document like mad. What’s the first step?

Well, figuring out what an endangered language is .

It’s tougher than you might think. A language can go from “totally stable” to “gone” in a matter of hours, though this “sudden death” only occurs during a terrible disaster. A tsunami destroys an island nation, or the British show up and murder the shit out of everyone who speaks aboriginal Tasmanian .

More common, and the constant concern in Ethiopia, is “gradual death.” This is a decades- or centuries-long weakening, as the language slowly gets used less and less, until it’s not used at all. The most obvious way to find a dying language is to count the number of speakers, but Dr. Zelealem says this can be tricky. A language can have 2,000 speakers and yet be more stable than a language with 20,000 speakers, or 200,000.

Why? Three more things. First, you need to know the number of people in the group who speak that language as their mother tongue. compared to the number of people in the group overall. If it’s a small percentage, you’ve found trouble.

Second, and related, you need to know the number of people who speak only that language. If almost all the speakers also speak Amharic, or Oromo, or English, they might exist side-by-side for years, then swap over to the bigger language all of a sudden.

And third, and also related, and most important, you need to know how many kids speak the language. A language could have a million speakers, but if all of them are over forty-five, it’s at risk.

Ok. You’ve done your research. You know what languages are endangered, and who might want you to come document. Now what?

See you next post.


The Language Nerd

P.S. The next next post will be on what happens when the community gets together and decides to keep a language alive. So hang on for that.

*Borrowed from Nahuatl, where it meant “the swelling fruit .”

**Last names in Ethiopia aren’t family names, they’re the father’s first name, so usually people are referred to by first name. Academics are also first-name-first in citations, instead of the “Smith, Betty” Western style. Just a heads-up for your next bibliography.

***It’s the second one. Though if it comes after the noun, it’s technically a postposition.

My reference this time is (I’ll say it again) Wild Plant Nomenclature and Traditional Botanical Knowledge among Three Ethnological Groups in Northwestern Ethiopia . supplemented by personal discussion with the man himself, Dr. Zelealem Leyew. for which I’m deeply grateful. I’ve rendered his translations of Awi, Shinasha, and Gumuz plant names a little more idiomatically here.

A side-note: lists Dioscorea schimperiana (“it destroyed seven households”) as good eating. I leave this for the (ethno)botanists and epicureans of the area to sort out.

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