Ethnobotanical classification in Lisu: Data collection and management

Sellers, Holly
Sellers, Holly
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The northern region of Thailand, which borders Burma/Myanmar and Laos, is home to several non-Thai cultures, one of which is the Lisu. The Thailand Lisu number approximately 40,000 speakers and in total there are more than 1 million Lisu speakers across China, Burma/Myanmar and India. The language has 4 main dialects which are somewhat mutually intelligible. Although the language is not currently endangered, Lisu traditional knowledge of plant names and their uses is at substantial risk of being lost in the near future. This is partly due to the pressures of increasing modernity as well as younger villagers often moving away for work or study. Over two field trips I collected Southern Lisu plant names and uses, with the aim of investigating the plants’ ethnotaxonomical categorisations based on the folk taxonomic hierarchy developed by Brent Berlin (1992). There is currently no extensive corpus of Lisu ethnobotanical or plant name data to work from, so to complete this project, data was collected verbally from villagers. Specimen samples were then taken to a botanist who identified the plants’ scientific names. This resulted in more than 300 plants with both Lisu and scientific names being collected, and many more Lisu names where the plant could not be identified or a sample could not be taken for practical or ethical reasons. Both the samples and plant photos were later re-used in plant sorting exercises to test the cognitive basis of the folk categorisation strategies used in Lisu. This has led to three main outcomes: 1. The collection of a substantial corpus of plant data, including botanical information such as photos, dried specimens, botanical plant names, habitat information and GPS co-ordinates of plant locations. 2. The results of the analysis of the data, including the investigation of folk botanical categories in Lisu, some of which correspond with Brent Berlin’s taxonomy and some which do not, as well as the semantic categories of the names which, for example, include a focus on animal body parts, practical uses and a plant’s effect on animals or humans. 3. Linguistic information including Lisu plant names, descriptions and uses, as well as other audio recorded texts such as stories. This presentation will outline the methodology and the technology used in the collection of this large body of Lisu plant data and the subsequent management and use of the information collected. References: Berlin, B. (1992). Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
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