COOL10: Where linguistics, plants, fish and poetry collaborate

Staff Photographer at SIL
One ethnobotany presentation reported on a collaborative effort to include ethnobotany in linguistic fieldwork.

(July 2017) Linguists, ethnobotanists and ethnoarts specialists from around the world met 10-15 July at the National Museum in Honiara, Solomon Islands, for the 10th Conference on Oceanic Linguistics (COOL10), co-sponsored by the Museum and SIL’s Solomon Islands-based group.

Ethnobotany & Field Linguistics 

In his plenary lecture, ethnobotanist Dr. Will McClatchey encouraged scholars to collaborate across disciplines, claiming that “synergistic field research between botanists and linguists is possible when focused on mutually beneficial goals.” Language endangerment was compared with the parallel loss of much of the traditional ecological knowledge formerly held by entire communities. By doing collaborative fieldwork, botanists and linguists can together support language and culture vitality, as well as meet their own research goals.

One ethnobotany presentation reported on a collaborative effort to include ethnobotany in linguistic Natügu fieldwork. Co-authoring that presentation were: Dr. Brenda Boerger, SIL Special Consultant for Language and Culture Documentation, and her son Alex Boerger, who grew up learning the names of the local trees of Santa Cruz Island, along with Leonard Menrlwz, one of the rainforest consultants who assisted the US team and Myknee Sirikolo, a Solomon Islands botanist who contributed to their success. 

Spelling Consultation for WorldFish in Six Malaitan Languages

Dr. Johan Van Der Ploeg of WorldFish is collaborating with teams from six languages groups for them to determine what fish are being caught locally. Since the writing systems have not been used extensively and are not yet part of school programs in the country, the speakers themselves, as well as Dr. Van Der Ploeg, were concerned about whether they were spelling the vernacular language fish names correctly and consistently.

Since Dr. Boerger facilitated the collection of over 240 fish names and terms in Natügu in 2015 as part of a dictionary project, Van Der Ploeg requested Boerger’s participation for a spelling consultation. Boerger explained the ways the Malaitan languages are similar and where they differ. Highlighting spelling issues for each language and identifying the most challenging words to spell equipped language speakers for making such decisions in the future. The accuracy achieved in spelling fish names can have ramifications for other projects. For example, participants were encouraged to contribute their fish data to school teachers and local artists and to plan a fish dictionary or encyclopedia for use in the language areas. This would provide interesting reading material with correct spellings and enhance literacy competencies in the various languages. Furthermore, preserving this information in writing is a way to pass it on to the next generation.

However, knowing the names of fish, their habitats, breeding cycles, and predators is not just of interest to scientists. Such knowledge is part of a community’s shared knowledge, called “traditional ecological knowledge” or TEK. As Boerger pointed out, “When we lose language or knowledge about other parts of culture, it is like we have lost the anchor that makes us secure in who we are and we drift like a coconut on the sea.”


In an address titled "Words from our Ancestors: the art of sung poetry in northern Vanuatu," Alex François identified three main themes of poetry in northern Vanuatu:

  1. the nostalgia for a lost world;
  2. the fascina­tion with the forces of nature; and
  3. paying special attention to senses and emotions: (e.g. Dance of the Seasnake from Mwotlap, Vanuatu).

François advocated for including cultural knowledge, traditional crafts, music, and oral literature when documenting and analyzing languages. These potentially endangered areas of knowledge are often highly valued by the communities themselves.

Other ethnoarts papers included two authored by SIL-affiliated presenters. Kevin Salisbury spoke on, Pukapukan traditional chant genres. And in the only paper to feature traditional crafts, GIAL MA student Kim Wells presented Santa Cruz Island banana fiber weaving and its endangered Natqgu technical vocabulary — an outgrowth of fieldwork done with Dr. Boerger in 2015.

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