The five senses are reflected not only in the ways that local
people identify plants, but also in how they name them. Take the following
examples from the Mixe people of the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, Mexico, where I
carried out my doctoral research and where my colleague Sřren Wichmann studied
the relationship between Mixe-Zoque languages. /GJM
kaaj taatsk. The Mixe believe that the large
shiny leaves of various Clusia species (Clusiaceae) resemble cattle
ears, hence the figurative name: kaaj = ‘cattle and other animals’ and taatsk =
nu’upun kup. The red thick sap of Croton
draco Schldl. (Euphorbiaceae) reminds people in many cultures of blood. The
Mixe call it ‘blood tree’, and similar names are found in other indigenous
poo’p xuu’k. Angel’s trumpets, Brugmansia x
candida Pers. (Solanaceae), perfume gardens throughout the world. But the
Mixe have come up with the most magical name, which translates as ‘white
poom kup. The ‘incense tree’ of the Mixe
comprises various species of Bursera and perhaps Protium
(Burseraceae) that yield copal resin, which is burned for ritual and medicinal
purposes. The etymology of this tree name can be traced to the
proto-Mixe-Zoquean term *po:m(o), giving partial evidence that copal incense has
played a role in Mesoamerican culture for thousands of years. A proto-language
is an assumed or recorded ancestral language that can be reconstructed by
comparing words and grammars of current-day, related languages. Reconstructed
terms from these languages are always preceded by an asterisk to indicate that
they are long-forgotten forms that are not currently in use.
oo’tsun aa’ts. Psitticanthus calyculatus
(DC.) G.Don (Loranthaceae), a beautiful mistletoe with reddish-orange
flowers, has sticky seeds that attach themselves to tree trunks. The Mixes have
named it ‘sticky vine’; the term ‘to stick’ has been reconstructed in
proto-Mixe-Zoque, whereas the term ‘vine’ can be traced back to
taaxt ke’ev and tajkts ke’ev.
A pair of stinging species, Cnidoscolus urens (L.) Arthur (and
related plants in the Euphorbiaceae) and Urtica dioica L. (and its
relatives in the Urticaceae), are called ‘hail sting’ and ‘mouse sting’ by the
Mixe. The proto-Mixe-Zoque term *ke:w? is proof that these plants have left a
lasting impression on local people.
tsaa’n xi’tsun. Literally, ‘snake rattle’, a
name used by the Mixe for Crotalaria bupleurifolia Schldl. & Cham.
(Fabaceae) and related species. The Crotalaria seed pods turn brown and dry when
mature, and the seeds come loose, producing a sound reminiscent of
pa’ajk tsaats. Can you guess what a ‘sweet
agave’ is? For some Mixe speakers, it is the local name for pineapple
(Ananas comosus L., Bromeliaceae), a fleshy sweet fruit that almost
everyone knows. Of South American origin, the pineapple was introduced to
Mesoamerica centuries ago, probably before the arrival of Europeans.
Linguistically, the Mixe consider the pineapple a part of the native Agave
generic tsaats, apparently because of the similar habit of these distantly
related plants. The general tendency to expand existing plant generics to
include newly introduced plants is referred to as lexical extension.
Martin, G.J. 1996. Comparative Ethnobotany of the
Chinantec and Mixe of the Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico. Ph.D.
dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. Ann Arbor, University
Wichmann, S. 1995. The Relationship among the Mixe-Zoquean
Languages of Mexico. Salt Lake City, University of Utah