Category: plants

Local language, local knowledge

Mulberries and lapsī are the topic today. It’s a real joy to work on the Flora of Nepal chapter on the Moraceae as so many of the species in its various genera are part of wonderfully complicated human-plant-animal knots. Figs, of course, are well known, but in the same family are mulberries, jackfruit, and all sort of other interesting plants.

The Himalayan mulberry (Morus serrata Roxb.) is not the same as the silkworm mulberry (Morus alba L) but it is a seasonal treat for those that know it. The word for mulberry  in Nepali is kimu. This doesn’t come from any Sanskrit, Persian or even Chinese word, as do many other terms in Nepali (think of gulāb for rose, or candān for sandalwood). It clearly comes from the Newari term kimbū or kimbūmā. Here the  suffix is the bound final particle for larger woody plants and trees; it’s also the counting particle for trees.

Mike Hutt’s otherwise excellent Teach Yourself Nepali observes that relatively few terms in what we now call Nepali come from the languages of the local cultures that the Gorkha princes overwhelmed, but I suspect terms for local forest products may turn out to be an exception. In compiling a thesaurus of terms for plants and materia medica, I have encountered a few cases where it seems that the words for rather important plants entered Nepali (or Gorkhali) from Newari (or Nepāl Bhāṣā). The term for mulberry is one of these. The Persian term (tūt) for mulberry travels with the Mughal awareness of sericulture and becomes the word for mulberry in Hindi and Bengali. For whatever reason, Gorkhali speakers adopted the Newar word instead, calling it kimū. The mulberry isn’t widely remembered among Newars as a useful fruit now, but the terms kimba and kimise (- suffix: fruit) are attested in the 17th century and kimbū or kimbūmā are the words for mulberry.

So, too—and here I tread on somewhat more tenuous ground—the term in Nepali for Choerospondias axillaris, lapsī, would seem actually to be an old Newari term that has been replaced in Newari by a tadbhāva reflecting its medicinal and taste properties, āmlī. The modern Newari term clearly reflects both the sourness of  the fruit of C. axillaris and its position in Newar medicine analagous to the myrobalans. The Gorkhali term, however, looks like a Newar word and has no cognate anywhere: the ending in -si follows the usual construction of words for fruits. If I am right, then the word for this most Nepalese of fruits is actually an old Newari term, borrowed into Gorkhali, where the original Newari term has itself been replaced by a Sanskrit tadbhāva.

Other terms for culturally significant plants that may originally come from Newari include pharsī (gourd or squash, Cucurbita species — Newari phāsi) and kapāsī (maples, Acer spp). The ending -si is extremely common in Nepali and masks the existence of terms for fruiting plants ending in -si borrowed from Newari, but it also permits borrowings to exist in Nepali without appearing foreign. 

From this we may learn that, just as toponyms can reveal something of the history of a place, zoonyms may also be evidence for the dynamics of ecosocial contact.


For a few years now I’ve signed myself off as an ‘ecosocial anthropologist’. It was the least annoying glue-together phrasing I could find for what I do, though other people refer to me (so far as I know, and without straying into all the perjoratives) as an anthropologist, Buddhologist or Himalayanist.

‘Ecosocial’, though, stinks as a phrase. First off, like ‘polyamory’, it mixes Greek ad Latin roots. ὄικος and socios should not be combined, and frankly, I should have known better.

As a concept, it belongs in the same bag as naturecultures, biocultural and a few other similar terms: the act of gluing together two sides of a dichotomy that neglects everything that was purposefully excluded when that dichotomy was crafted. As John Law points out in After Method, assemblages (and a dichotomy is an assemblage) not only divides the foreground from the background, it also relegates a vast realm of practices to be unmentionable and unthinkable. In Law’s terms:

…method assemblage makes something present by making absence. Formally I treat it as the enactment of presence, manifest absence, and absence as Otherness. More specifically it is the crafting, bundling or gathering of relations in three parts: (a) whatever is in-here or present (or instance a representation or an object); (b) whatever is absent but also manifest (it can be seen, is described, is manifestly relevant to presence); and (c) whatever is absent but Other because, while necessary to presence, it is also hidden, repressed or uninteresting. (Law 2004:144)

I am not particularly happy with ‘otherness’ as a description (have we no more precise term for deliberate ignorance?), but it will have to do; the point is clear. So what’s the problem with naturecultures and the rest of that ilk? Such terms actually preserve a form of human exclusivism that, one would hope, they are setting out to destroy. In particular, by accepting the terms of the natural/social dichotomy as given and seeking to bind them together into a whole, such terms solidify the forgetting of nonhuman actors in the generation of the social.

When, in Latour’s ‘Modern’—which dates back at least to Socrates, so far as I can tell—we divide the natural from the social, we accept a definition of person—all persons are humans—and society—society shapes and is made up from persons. This definition sits deep in the unexamined heart of social anthropology, and it explains why when one person treats their mother as a person, it needs no explanation; but when they treat their long-deceased ancestor, a raven, or a mountain as a person, then anthropology use be called in to explain their ‘beliefs’. So far as I can tell, though, that’s just as arbitrary a judgement as it is to declare that only religions which have ‘beliefs’ at their core count as real —or ‘world’—religions. It’s an exercise of power in defence of historical privilege.

Certainly most folk living in the central Himalayas assume that the animals, trees, landscape features, deities and all other such vivacious non-human actors all interact with each other, whether or not there are human persons around to witness or be affected by those encounters. Just which trees or mountains or what have you are taken to be important varies among different human social groups—but then again, I expect the crows and monkeys have fairly strong socially constructed and historically deep ideas about buildings, too.

What we need is a language for talking about studying the social networks and processes that happen among H. sapiens and others—and in particular, how those networks and processes contribute to cultural and biological diversities among all the overlapping social frames. Primate biocultural diversity; corvid biocultural diversity; fungal biocultural diversity? How do we talk about those kinds of richness, their documentation, their adaptation, their moral worth?

How do we move towards an activist anthropology of all beings?

The yam question

My thanks to those brave few people who actually answered the yam survey. (For those who had no idea there was such a thing, please consult and answer the questions!) I did promise Felice Wyndham I’d post the results, so here’s what I uncovered.

The whole haggis hunt was set off by the need to prepare a Māgh Saṃkrānti feast at our house in Aberdeen. That’s one of the only solar, as opposed to lunisolar, feasts in the Newar ritual calendar, and among other things one should eat ही [](in Newari) or तरुल [tarul](in Nepali)—that is, Dioscorea root. Bhāwanā and I had a long conversation about exactly what plant was involved, and what other tubers might be confused with it.

Particularly confusing to me was the listing in several Newari dictionaries of a term चकु ही [caku hī]—that is, a sweet Dioscorea—referring to Ipomea batatas. Neither Bhāwanā nor her father had ever heard that term (even though it was listed in Sugat Das Tulādhar’s little dictionary from the 1950’s) and both were sure that Ipomea was the wrong food. Strangely, K Shrestha’s Dictionary of Nepalese Plant Names didn’t give any Newari word for Dioscorea or Ipomea, though to be frank, it’s not much good for Newari language terms. It made formal sense that in Newari, Dioscorea was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas thus became a ‘sweet Dioscorea’, while in North America, Solanum tuberosum was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas was thus a ‘sweet Solanum tuberosum’ — except that it was only dictionaries, and not real people, who actually had the term. When we talked about Ipomea batatas with the Nepal family, everyone used the Nepali word शकर खण्ड [śakar khaṇḍ] and my suspicion is that चकु ही is a hyper-Newari back formation associated with the Newar language movement, much like च्वसा [cvasā] for pen instead of the ‘Nepali’ कलम [kalam](actually from the Persian قلم (ghalam), so predating the much-resented Gorkha conquest).

Being a Californian, to me Ipomea batatas was either a ‘sweet potato’ or a ‘yam’ – I had no English word to refer to Dioscorea spp. tubers. English language dictionaries confirmed this: although ‘yam’ should refer to Dioscorea tubers or plants, for North Americans, ‘yam’ was an orange-fleshed Ipomea batatas and a ‘sweet potato’ was one with white flesh. That was news to me: I had never encountered either with anything other than orange flesh. Since we’re reading Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s The Yearling at night just now, I’m hoping among its other intricate descriptions of animals and crops she’ll let slip a hint of whether the Baxter grew and ate white or orange Ipomea…but I’m getting distracted here.

I trundled down to our local Asian shop on King St., by a little bit worried that I would get the wrong thing.

When I got there, this is what I saw (with apologies for quick iPhone shots and messy stitching):


From left to right, what you are seeing are the roots of
Ipomea batatas, Manihot esculenta, Dioscorea spp., and Colocasia esculenta.

Of course, I had no idea what word they would use to refer to ही so I just pointed, and that’s when it got interesting. Given that the staff at City Spice, who are a mix of Scots, Bangladeshi and sometimes also Nepali, need to sell this range of tubers in English (or Scots) to folk from Scotland, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, they have unambiguous words for each. For them, what you have here are:
Sweet potato, cassava, yam, and taro.

The shopkeeper confirmed that a significant number of customers used the word ‘yam’ to refer to Ipomea batatas and he thought they were mostly North American.

I bought my ‘yam’, after a long conversation about names for these, trotted home, and wrote the survey. It seemed to me that migration and changing foodways might well be driving a change in how people distinguished these roots. It made sense that the proprietors of shops that sourced and sold foods to a wide range of migrant populations would need to have clear distinctions, but would that also apply in urban centres elsewhere as global cuisines began to spread? I assumed that the sorts of people who would answer the survey—because I publicized it through my own social networks—would be unusually mobile, highly educated, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and have a wide exposure to different foods. Would there be a clear consensus?


To begin with, I had only 9 responses. To those of you that saw my pleas to do the survey and moved on, well, fine. I guess I shall simply have to write more appealing surveys. I was able to follow up with a handful of those responses. Here’s a brief summary:

1. One respondent had never encountered ‘yam’ at all, whether as food or as commodity, and before the survey had suspected it was a fruit.
2. Three of the respondents distinguished between ‘yam’ and Ipomea batatas; two identified it as Dioscorea, and one was sure that it was not a ‘sweet potato’.
3. Two respondents said that ‘yam’ was a sweet potato or a variety of sweet potato.
4. While I had hoped to pick up further distinctions through asking ‘What other tubers are like yams’, this didn’t work the way I had expected. Seven respondents, including some who said yams were sweet potatoes, listed sweet potatoes among tubers like yams. One person used this answer to record their confusion as to whether a yam was a sweet potato; another used the ‘when you last ate a yam’ question to do the same.
5. Three respondents distinguished yams by country of origin, and two also by similarity to some other tuber. Responses included (a) ‘Old World version of American sweet potato’; (b) ‘South American tuber’; (c) ‘potato-like tuber of African origin’.
6. Almost everyone saw their yams in supermarkets. One person saw theirs in a CSA delivery box.

7.Three respondents had cooked their own; two of these identified it as Dioscorea and one as Ipomea batatas and all were confident of their answers.

8. Of the remaining six respondents, four had been fed by a relative or friend and were less sure of their answers. One had eaten it in an Indian restaurant, and was sure it was not a sweet potato.

Just from this, it is clear that among the respondents there is still a division in the use of the term between kind-of-Ipomea and Dioscorea. Three answers were markedly confident, but for the rest, just asking these questions exposes respondents to considerable doubt as to their answers.

In one response where I was able to ask further questions, it became clear that the respondent had learned what a ‘yam’ was through playing Farmville, on Facebook—and thus although they were not from North America, had internalised ‘yam’ as a kind-of-Ipomea through virtual agriculture (!).

Without a much larger response pool and a more carefully crafted survey, not much can be done; but I suspect as a result of this exercise that there are two trends at work. One is, as I suggested above, the movement of foodways through migration and globalisation. The other—which I didn’t expect—is the possibility for unfamiliar terms to acquire a firmly held definition through internet or mass media socialisation wholly divorced from the actual crop or food item.

However, if anyone does care to pick this project up, I propose that seeking changes in just the English terminology would be comparatively unrevealing. Given that the hard work of constructing immigrant foodways often happens in retail transactions at ‘Asian shops’ (where I often meet as many African cooks as I do South or East Asian) it would make sense to look for changes in several languages where those languages are the lingua franca of shopkeeper or hotelier networks, such as Cantonese, Punjabi, Bengali, or Spanish. In each of these communities there will have to be adjustments to a wider inventory of food types as well as a complex clientele; will they move in parallel within each major urban region?

(With thanks to those of you who responded, and thanks to the kind staff at City Spice Shop.)

Summer in Aberdeen.

Our garden has achieved a near-perfect balance between weeds and cultivation. Bhawana and Śraddhā Jyoti brought in two big tubs of fresh strawberries yesterday evening. The apple trees have got plenty of fruit on, but show no signs of bending after last year’s pruning. A cat has moved into the long grass growing in front of the house—perhaps hunting the fieldmice? or the occasional rabbit?— and there are a few unusual weeds out there. We’ve actually got a well-established ant colony, though only in the west-facing garden; it’s just too cold anywhere else. The Buddleia still hasn’t really taken off; but the Himalaya Birch trees, savagely attacked by caterpillars, were rescued by sparrows who came and ate most of them. The Orange Hawkbit has taken off in the back, and the Tansies are thriving. The real reward: tonight a bat, probably a pipistrelle, came and hunted happily for about a half-hour. When we first arrived here I remember the occasional bat would pass by our garden and given it one or two disdainful loops; now we’re good for quite a few plump moths and beetles and a good long stay.

Compared to the riotous biodiversity of a ranch in the California hills, with hundreds of bird species to choose from, or the nocturnal acoustic chaos of Nepal, it’s not much. Every day I look out from this place and see, very clearly, that Aberdeen is a frightened, brutally industrial city in the far north of the world, politically sterile, cold and sullen and not much given to life. The trees in summer scramble to get their leaves out before the bitter blasts return. But for a cool grey summer’s evening in a cold, barren place, a good harvest of strawberries and one happy bat is adequate riches.