Leaf in Meꞌphaa

When I was in México, working with a team doing language documentation we visited a community workshop where the community organizer was promoting the language through a dictionary creation effort. I was interesting to see the various bi-lingual teachers come together and discuss a proposed entry and the definition.

Meꞌphaa group working on dictionary

Meꞌphaa group working on dictionary

There were several interesting aspects of the social interaction: there was the political unity in the perception that they were all there for the good of their language, there was the social unity because they were mostly there because they were in state jobs as teachers or school administrators. But perhaps more socially significant was the perception that the workshop leader had skills in organizing a dictionary. (Nothing wrong with this perception and it is probably an accurate perception.) Yet, it was not the only perception which was at play in the social interactions. There was also the cultural age based and social ranking based way of coming to a consensus about what did a particular Meꞌphaa (or any given) word mean. It is kind of this unspoken tension between the eldest in the group who would culturally have the authority or provide a stamp of approval, the workshop "dictionary expert", and the average participant who has to decide if they agree or disagree with whom and if they are going to show it.

The word which they were discussing at the time was the Meꞌphaa word for leaf. This discussion was challenging for me to follow even with translation as I realized that my own language, English, I am not sure that I knew all the parts of a leaf or if I could adequately come up with a definition which covered all cases. In some ways this was my first introduction to ethnobotany - the study of how a language talks about the plants which it co-exist with the speakers of that language.
Plant related words being considered by the group

Plant related words being considered by the group.

As the conversation proceeded about the definition of Meꞌphaa term for "leaf". After about an hour, they seemed to settle on the something which was not the stem or branch of the tree and was not dead. This seems all good until I noticed the tree in the left of the photo above.
Araucaria type pine

Close up of the tree. It appears to be an Araucaria type pine. The Norfolk Island pine is in this family.

Of course my curiosity was piqued. At lunch time I decided to take a branch and ask several people which part was the "leaf".

Araucaria heterophylla

Araucaria heterophylla or Araucaria columnaris branch. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

As you can see in the picture above, there are three layers to the structure there is the green part (needles), the secondary stem and the primary stem. I got several different answers and lots of smiles. This particular kind of plant had not been considered in the discussion about the definition of a "leaf" and obviously fit the definition they came up with but was something they would not use that word for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.