What do I call you

Janice Pariat | Updated on January 25, 2019 Published on January 25, 2019

Information hierarchy: Acts of naming plants do not happen in isolation   -  M PERIASAMY

Would a rose smell any sweeter if you called it by a local name?

While in Shillong over Christmas, I visited Mawphlang village, well known for its sacred grove. Wes, a young student, was our friendly local guide. The word for sacred grove in Khasi is “lawkyntang”, he began — “law”, short for “khlaw” (forest), and “kyntang” for consecrated or holy. There are over a thousand lawkyntangacross the state, but this one was the largest (over 70 hectares) and the oldest (over 600 years old). We entered through a natural arch of rhododendrons, which in March, we were told, would be ablaze with colour.

Inside, it was quiet. Darker, damper, with filtered sunlight falling in shifting patterns. Though a student of commerce, Wes was quite the botanist, rattling off the Latin names of plants. Elaeocarpus ganitrus, Rhus chinensis, Schima wallichii, and, towering above the rest, Pinus kesiya (Khasi pine). “But what,” I insisted, “are they all called locally?” He would tell us — Dieng Soh Phe, Dieng Sning — but only if we asked. It reminded me of a walk I’d taken through the Physic Garden in Chelsea, London, last summer, where our guide pointed out medicinal plants collected from around the world. “Why is the local name never acknowledged in the renaming?” I’d asked her. She had no answer. Moot question, maybe, given Linnaean botanical nomenclature has existed for over 250 years, but is it really?

Recently I was reading Linnaeus’s Lachesis Lapponica or Tour of Lapland (translated by James Edward Smith), a journal documenting his journey, in 1732, around the Gulf of Bothnia. In classic anthropologist style, he minutely recorded the customs of the native Sami people (including their fondness for reindeer milk drink called syra), the region’s birds, animals, and minerals, but he was most enthused, understandably, by the plants. He recognised plenty of specimens, but what struck me was what he wrote when he didn’t — “I came upon a plant I did not know and I named it.”

The act of naming is a complicated thing.

TS Eliot made a case for its potency in The Naming of Cats: “To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name.” For him, naming conferred dignity, it transformed into familiarity. “To name is to pay attention; to name is to love.” Like baptism, naming propelled the creation of personality. To bestow a name is to bestow power, to invest with a soul. As language theorist James Britton explained, by conferring names on objects, we engage in a “process of bringing [it] into existence”. In this sense, we create the phenomena that we name, imperceptibly shaping the objects we see or the experiences we recall.

But problems arise — as academics Cherryl Armstrong and Sheryl Fontaine point out in The Power of Naming, published in the WPA Journal — because, once chosen, a name suggests permanence, as if it — and only it — could lay claim upon the true nature of an object. By fixing an object or experience with an apparent unity or permanent focus, names appear to represent the true nature of phenomena. We must also recognise that acts of naming do not often occur in isolation. They take place within a social context. So while we may have reason, however good and worthy, to defend Linnaean botanical nomenclature, I am more concerned with the dynamics of power at play.

Naming is an act of power.

It is both social and linguistic practice, explain Armstrong and Fontaine, because the names we use always derive from our representations and categorisations but also because they always imply a certain position vis-à-vis the object being named. Linnaean botanical nomenclature is more than a mode of providing formal scientific names for a taxonomical system. It also represents a world view that infused, some would even say propelled, the colonial project. It assumes universality at the dismissal of the local, of the object in situ. It is planted at the top of the hierarchy of forms of knowledge — the empirical over the experiential, the written over the oral.

In truth, I wasn’t thinking of all this while walking through thelawkyntang. There were ancient menhirs to marvel at and an array of mushrooms to photograph.

But every time Wes named a tree, a fungus, a flower, I flinched. I was reminded of passages from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s extraordinarily evocative Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing, but she conjures also the position of the namer with the question of “whether we are speaking from inside or outside of the circle”. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, she continues, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. “Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?”

This will be my question when I return to the lawkyntang at Mawphlang and elsewhere, to the Chelsea Physic Garden, when I walk amidst the trees. In acknowledging the names they have been given by the ones who share their space, we might be able to fathom what they call themselves.

Janice Pariat   -  BUSINESS LINE


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart; Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on January 25, 2019
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