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The web of words and the web of life: Reconnecting language documentation with ethnobiology

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Title: The web of words and the web of life: Reconnecting language documentation with ethnobiology
Issue Date: 28 Feb 2013
Description: There are many reasons to see linguistics and biology as connected sister fields. Both draw their inspiration from the stunning diversity in their respective worlds, developing evolutionary accounts of change and diversification, and the dialogue between historical linguistics and evolutionary biology has been going on since the famous correspondence between Darwin and Schleicher. in the 1860s. A substantial part of any language is devoted to the description of biological phenomena, so that we cannot give a complete account of how any language functions without examining how it represents these in its vocabulary, grammar and phraseology. And, in an era when there is increasing appreciation of how much small-scale speech communities know about the natural world that have yet to be ‘discovered’ by mainstream biology, the study of little-documented languages is a natural key to unlocking the full dimensions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Despite the natural affinity between these two fields, the potential for fruitful collaboration has waned in recent decades. Compared to the heyday of interaction from the 1960s to the early 1980s, when studies of ethnobiological terminology flourished under the aegis of Berlin and his colleagues, representative journals like Ethnobiology now contained negligible amounts of linguistic material. A possible explanation for this is that the Berlinian paradigm for the ethnobiology/linguistics connection became so focussed on its own ‘taxonomocentric’ set of questions – about universals of folk taxonomic structure, and about the relations of linguistic categories at various levels to those found in the natural world – that a whole series of other research questions were put aside. In this talk I will resuscitate a number of these, illustrating my argument with examples drawn from fieldwork in northern Australia and southern New Guinea.

These include:
(a) the use of non-morphological criteria in constructing categories, including similaries of sound (bird calls), behaviour (bird nesting patterns), gait (kangaroos and wallabies) and cosociality (some bird sps)
(b) ecological relations, including habitat, diet, succession
(c) behaviour, including cache defence, mating, migration and nesting
(d) utility for humans, including food, medicine, material for manufacture, but also as information signalling (e.g. birds, insects, ‘calendar flowers’), route guides and fire management

The above topics are organised by type of information, but while discussing them I will also investigate the linguistic dimension of how this is encoded, including the use of gait verbs, reduplication, various types of derivational morphology in nouns, and ‘sign metonymies’ signalled by gender alternations. By examining the coevolution of human knowledge about the natural world, and the linguistic means for expressing it, I will show that the two fields of linguistics and ethnobiology are ripe for reengagement across a broad range of questions. As McClatchey (2012:297) has put it: "The ethnobiologists and other scientists are waiting for the linguists to call." Introduced by Nicholas Thieberger
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/26184
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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