Linguists love plants, too!

Linguists can never solely concentrate on language. This is especially true for field linguists who document a previously unknown language. Unveiling the charm of an undocumented language requires the researcher to explore as much as possible about the people, the society, and of course, the nature around them.

Linguists sometimes (well, sometimes always) do better than anthropologists when it comes to the interaction between linguistics and anthropology (change my mind!). Studies on kinship systems are a good example. A lot of linguists have done researches in this domain, like Loungsbury (1956), who did a thorough study on Pawnee (Caddoan) kinship terms, published in Language; Harry Hoijer, a student of Edward Sapir, published in the same year a paper on Athapaskan kinship terms (Hoijer 1956). Returning from the good old days, recent years see the emergence of interest in anthropological issues among linguists who study Sino-Tibetan languages. Guillaume Jacques published a paper in 2012, on the kinship system in Tangut, an extinct language once spoken in Today’s Ningxia, China (Jacques 2012). Another exciting work comes from my colleague, Zhang Shuya, has been interested in Kinship systems of Rgyalrong languages (Sino-Tibetan, spoken in Sichuan, China). Rgyalrong languages in general exhibit complex phonology (see the descriptions in Hsie 1999, Jacques 2004 and Jacques 2008), and for untrained ears, distinguishing phonemes with subtle differences would be a pain in the neck. In Bragbar Situ (an Eastern Rgyalrong language), kinship terms are full of similar but distinctive phonemes that if we aren’t able to make the distinction, we risk making serious errors.

For example, the prefixes tɐ- and ta- are different in that their vocalisms annotate the gender, tɐ- for female and ta- for male: tɐ-‘tsi-pu ‘mother’s sister’s brother’ vs ta-kə-pō ‘mother’s brother’s sister’. Further, historical linguistic analyses can help us understand how kinship systems changed in time, comparing the different systems of a few dialects and observing the semantic changes of cognates. I would doubt that an anthropologist can figure all these things out without collaborating with an experienced field linguist. If you are interested in this study, please wait impatiently for Shuya’s forthcoming paper, Brag-bar kinship system in synchronic and diachronic perspectives, to appear next year in BSOAS.

This post, however, is not about kinship terms, but about plant terms, which is arguably a greater challenge than kinship terms. This summer (June – August 2019), I went on a field trip with Shuya to document plant terms in two of the Rgyalrongic languages, Brag-bar Situ and Siyuewu Khroskyabs Khroskyabs.

The languages in question are spoken in the mountainous regions in the highlands of Western Sichuan. The area is covered by two vegetation zones, the mid-mountain vegetation zone in the southeast margin and the alpine canyon vegetation zone in the southeast. You can find a good number of species there, from evergreen broad-leaved forests to alpine shrub meadows. The high botanical diversity are pretty much comparable to the linguistic diversity there. Native speakers, quite imaginably, live in interactions with the natural environment, and their minds could well be an encyclopedia of local plants.

The Siyuewu village

The Siyuewu village

We are both botany laymen, so we collaborated with botanists from Yunnan University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in order to accomplish our goal.

We went into the mountains together and learn from one another. The field work is generally accompanied by one or several native speaker(s), who identify plants and tell us about them: the name in the local language, the morphology, and the uses.

Shuya taking notes from native speakers

bsang gsol (bsang offering)

The botanists help us collect specimens, and teach us how to conserve them. Normally, it is best to have flowers or fruits on the specimens, so the botanists can make accurate identifications. But not everyone of them happens to bloom or bear fruit within a given period of a year, and that means we need field trips in different seasons. Summer is good enough, anyway, as you can see most of the flowers and the weather is pleasant.

Me making specimens

Shuya learning from the botanists

The specimens were then brought back to Yunnan, where the botanists are based. They may have some secret weapon to help identify the species and report us back with the scientific names. And us, the linguists, stayed in the Rgyalrongic speaking regions to do our job: recording and transcribing. Several native consultants are needed, as they might make mistakes with the plant terms.

Some terms are quite funny. The burdock (Arctium lappa L.), is called pəɟə-rtsôs in Brag-bar Situ. Literally, pəɟə̄ means ‘mouse’ and rtsôs means ‘to touch’, so the term globally means ‘touch by the mouse’.


The Khroskyabs term mɑ̂venono, literally meaning ‘grandmother’s breasts’, designates the flower of Salvia przewalskii Maxim, as the purple flowers, accordingly, look like female breasts with ptosis as they age.

Salvia przewalskii Maxim

So, what could we do with linguistic ethnobotany? There could be many benefits, both synchronically and diachronically, linguistically and non-linguistically.

By comparing cognates between plant terms, we may get a better idea about the sound correspondences across different Rgyalrongic languages and improve our understanding of Rgyalrongic historical linguistics. That some of the terms can be reconstructed into the proto-language implies that the ancestors of all Rgyalrongic people already knew and probably made use of those plants. Terms borrowed from other languages can be sorted by layers, according to different stages of sound change. We know that sound correspondences are always messy in Sino-Tibetan languages, but plant term comparisons may tidy up the mess, and we can also implement automatic methods (see for example [this post]) So it is not impossible to know the relative chronology of plants known by native speakers. Inference of the Proto-Rgyalrongic life could well be made based on historical linguistic analyses (of course, we need more cognates!). The table below shows the cognates found in the field work this year.

Plant terms are a key to synchronic analyses of nominal constructions in the modern languages. They cover nearly all kinds of nominal morphology, commonly or rarely found in other nominals. From unanalysable terms, to various types of compounding. Shuya and I gave a talk on this subject in Tianjin this year (Lai and Zhang 2019). I am also looking forward to use the method of word formation handling, when I have enough material, developed by Nathanael, with his excellent paper accepted, Schweikhard and List (forthcoming). The table below shows the cases of Tatpuruṣa in Siyuewu Khroskyabs.

The fruits produced from this project are not only to feed us, the researchers, but also to be given back to the native speakers and the entire society. We plan to publish an encyclopedia of local plants with names, descriptions and sound files in Rgyalrongic languages (Hopefully three languages, including Guillaume Jacques’ Japhug).


Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1956. A Semantic Analysis of the Pawnee Kinship Usage. Language 32 (1): 158-194.

Hoijer, Harry. 1956. “Athapaskan kinship systems”. American Anthropologist. 58 (2): 309–333.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2012d. The Tangut kinship system in Qiangic per-spective. In Nathan W. Hill (ed.), Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages IV, 211–258. Leiden: Brill.

Hsieh, Feng-fan. 1999. Theoretical Aspects of Zhuokeji rGyalrong Phonology. National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan MA thesis.

Lai, Yunfan and Zhang Shuya. 2019. Plant terms as key to nominal morphology in Rgyalrongic languages. Paper presented at the he Fourth Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Southwest China. August 2019.

Schweikhard, Nathanael and Johann-Mattis List. under review. Handling word formation in comparative linguistics.

Zhang, Shuya. forthcoming. Brag-bar kinship system in synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Cite this blog post
Lai Yunfan (2019, December 11). Linguists love plants, too! Computer-Assisted Language Comparison in Practice. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

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