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Documenting linguistic and epistemological structure of ecotopes for pedagogical purposes

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Title: Documenting linguistic and epistemological structure of ecotopes for pedagogical purposes
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Language documentation theory stresses the relation between language and the knowledge systems inextricably linked to it (Thieberger, 2011, p. 1). Consequently, language documentation projects often focus on specific domains in order to document both the linguistic and epistemological structures used by Indigenous groups. The former often depart from familiar Indo-European patterns, while the latter defy Western scientific paradigms, and are usually not acquired through formal schooling. In the face of worldwide linguistic and cultural erosion and as documentation projects bring their results to the table, a pedagogical question arises: Are we developing pedagogical materials that reflect not only Indigenous linguistic practices but also Indigenous knowledge systems and Indigenous ways of acquiring them?

In this paper, I use first-hand ethnoecological data from Lokono, a critically endangered North Arawakan language spoken in the Guianas, to problematize this question. The Lokono distinguish a set of (generic) ecotopes (Hunn and Meilleur, 2012), whose names are derived with suffixes –wkaro ‘swampy area’ or –wkili ‘dry area’ from a nominal base encoding a botanical resource (e.g. mokorowkaro ‘a swampy area of the mokoro reed (Ischnosiphon arouma)’ and awarhawkili ‘a dry area of the awarha palm (Astrocaryum vulgare)’). Careful analysis of the knowledge encoded in the ecotope vocabulary reveals a network of related bits of information: botanical (knowledge of other plants that grow there), zoological (knowledge of animals that feed there), edaphic (knowledge of the soil type), hydrological (knowledge of water resources) and utilitarian (knowledge of the uses of the resource). Interestingly, the utilitarian component of the set covers the core of Lokono culture.

Lokono ecotopes are hence an example of linguistic structures that merge information from different domains. Such ethnoecological knowledge is normally acquired through “first-hand experience immersed in a particular landscape” (Zarger, 2011, p. 372). For the linguistic and cultural survival of an Indigenous group, it may be of utmost importance to pass the linguistic and epistemological content of such ecotopes as one “package” rooted in the local landscape, instead of disintegrating them into familiar semantic domains (and corollary chapter divisions) such as Animals, Plants, Weather, Home abstracted from this “package”. I demonstrate how these considerations help us shape a future Lokono revitalization program—a course book (formal schooling) that takes the students on a physical journey through the village and its surroundings (immersed experience). I use the ecotope example to show how the documented linguistic and epistemological structures can help us organize the curriculum.


Hunn, E.S., Meilleur, B.A., 2012. Toward a Theory of Landscape Ethnoecological Classification, in: Johnson, L.M., Hunn, E.S. (Eds.), Landscape Ethnoecology: Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space. Berghahn Books, pp. 15–26.

Thieberger, N., 2011. Introduction, in: Thieberger, N. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork, Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics. Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York, pp. 1–12.

Zarger, R.K., 2011. Learning Ethnobiology: Creating Knowledge and Skills about the Living World, in: Anderson, E.N., Pearsall, D., Hunn, E., Turner, N. (Eds.), Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., pp. 371–389.
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/25346
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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