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The Collection and Elucidation of Vernacular Names: Observations on Shambaa Ethnobotany

The Collection and Elucidation of Vernacular Names: Observations on Shambaa Ethnobotany

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Published by Martin Walsh
An article by Martin Walsh commenting on a list of Shambaa tree and shrub names from north-east Tanzania published by Jon Lovett.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1993. The Collection and Elucidation of Vernacular Names: Observations on Shambaa Ethnobotany. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 23 (2): 21 25.
An article by Martin Walsh commenting on a list of Shambaa tree and shrub names from north-east Tanzania published by Jon Lovett.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1993. The Collection and Elucidation of Vernacular Names: Observations on Shambaa Ethnobotany. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 23 (2): 21 25.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Martin Walsh on Apr 07, 2009
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Martin T. Walsh
School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex, U.K.corrected version of a paper originally published in
East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 
, 23 (2): 21-25June 1993
{NB: the page numbers in this version donot follow those of the published text}
current address:
EANHS Bulletin 23 (2), June 1993______________________________________________________________________________1
The following notes provide additionalcomment to the list of Shambaa tree andshrub names and their uses published byJon Lovett (1992). The Shambaa (orShambala, also called Sambaa by some of their neighbours) are a Bantu speakingpeople who live in the UsambaraMountains in North-east Tanzania. We arefortunate in already possessing moreinformation on Shambaa ethnobotany thanfor many East African people: in additionto work by Fleuret (1979a; 1979b; 1980) ondifferent aspects of Shambaa plantclassification and use, there also exists acyclostyled dictionary of plant names inShambaa and two closely relatedlanguages, Bondei and Zigua/Nguu(Sangai, 1963). This dictionary gives wellover 1,000 names (including cognates) inthe three languages, together with theirbotanical equivalents. Despite itscomparatively modest size, the listreproduced by Lovett is an importantaddition to the literature on Shambaaethnobotany, and in the following notes Ihope to indicate why this is so, as well asmake further observations about theShambaa list and East African ethnobotanyin general.The list comprises 53 names providedby Mr Mgaa Sabuni, a resident of Mgwashivillage and forest guard at the University of Dar es Salaam's forest reserve at Mazumbaiin the West Usambara Mountains,Tanzania. Lovett remarks that subsequentusers of Sabuni’s list (using different localguides) have commented that it is notwholly accurate and notes that there isobviously considerable local variation inthe application of names to plants that arenot commonly used. However, comparisonof the Shambaa terms in Sabuni’s list withSangai's (1963) dictionary reveals a highdegree of correspondence (and presumablyaccuracy). 46 (or 87%) of the 53 names inSabuni’s list can also be found in Sangai’sdictionary: which does not mean, of course,that the remainder are wrong. There are, itmight be added, some differences in thetranscription of Shambaa, and wherenecessary I have taken account of these.Some of the terms in the Sabuni list areevidently mistranscribed, e.g. "dwaiu" forSangai's
, "cherooti" for
,"mbakambaka" for
, and"mshiwhi" for
. It is also evidentthat a few of the terms given by Sabunihave been translated in part or whole fromShambaa into Swahili: thus "mpigamagasa" for the proper Shambaa
(literally "hand-clapper").Sabuni's "mti wa paa" (Swahili "antelopetree", identified as
 Dovyalis abyssinica
),not present in Sangai, also seems to fall intothis category; likewise his "mweti misitu"or "
of the forest" (given as
), where the unqualifiedShambaa name
) refersto
 Rauvolfia caffra
according to Sangai.At the same time, 38 (or 83%) of the46 terms common to both lists are givensubstantially similar (or overlapping)botanical identifications, i.e. correspondingat the generic level. Again, this does notmean that the remainder are incorrect: thiscould only be established by furtherinvestigation. To the extent that theycorroborate one another, however, this doesincrease our confidence in the accuracy of both lists. In one important respect, though,the Sabuni list is much less complete thanthe Sangai dictionary. Where only three(6%) of the names in the former list aregiven double identifications, more than half of their equivalents in Sangai (24 of the 46,or 52%) are given two or more botanicalequivalents, and in 63% of cases (15 out of 24) these multiple identifications are notconfined to a single genus. Thus
,mentioned above, is identified as both
Philippia benguelensis
. In this respect the Sabuni list is
EANHS Bulletin 23 (2), June 1993______________________________________________________________________________2
not inaccurate: it is simply incomplete,though this may help to explain why it hasappeared inaccurate to other observers.Lovett suggests that local variation inthe application of vernacular names to lesscommonly used plants may explain theapparent inaccuracy of Sabuni’s list. Thisis, however, only one a number of possibleexplanations for the discrepancies innaming which occur. These differentexplanations can be grouped under fourmain headings, as follows:
Informant error
. There are differentkinds of errors to be considered. One of these is plain linguistic error, themisquoting of a name by an informant or itsmistranscription by the recorder. Thetranslation of vernacular terms into Swahili(often for the benefit of a particular listener,though sometimes as the unintendedconsequence of a more general process of linguistic change) is a special and fairlycommon case of this. The misidentificationof plants and misapplication of terms alsoundoubtedly occurs. Although it is notdifficult to find young informants from arural background with a ready command of more than 100 vernacular plant names,knowledge of local vegetation and its usesclearly varies considerably betweenindividuals according to a number of factors (including age and sex), withherbalists and similar specialists oftenhaving the widest knowledge. It is alsoevident that this knowledge will vary fromone locality to another depending upondifferences in the local vegetation:informants in an unfamiliar environmentwill be much more prone to making errorsthan on their home ground. At the sametime, and in the absence of any standardother than common agreement, there mayalso be borderline cases between erroneousidentification (beginning with individualerrors) and its possible consolidation intounorthodox opinion (which may developinto local orthodoxy). This process mayoccur when a number of people move fromone area to another, and consistently makethe same mistakes of identification for thesame reasons (e.g. because of the similarityof an unfamiliar plant with one they knowfrom their original home). In this way whatbegins as collective error can result inlinguistic variation.
2. Linguistic Variation
. Where the namesfor plants vary in a regular way from onelocation to another we can ascribe this todialect differences. Dialects often formcontinua of mutual intelligibility and it isnot always easy to draw hard and fastboundaries between them. Whereas mostlanguages in East Africa have beenclassified and described, at least in outline,the description of the dialects whichcomprise them is not as well advanced.Shambaa (or Shambala: the presence orabsence of /l/ varies according to dialect) isno exception. Besha (1989) notes that theShambaa dialects have not been studied atall, and for the purposes of her ownanalysis of the language provisionallydistinguishes between three main varieties,centring on Mlalo, Lushoto and Korogwerespectively. Given the existence of suchdifferences it is important for researchers ortheir assistants to transcribe vernacularnames as accurately as possible, and for theformer to be aware of existing orthographicconventions (which may conceal linguisticvariation, as widespread use of standardKikuyu orthography does in centralKenya). It is perhaps even more importantfor them to note relevant details about thebackground of individual informants andtheir speech. At the very least informantsshould be identified by their residence orplace of origin, as Lovett has done forMgaa Sabuni. Unfortunately, Sangai'sdictionary tells us nothing about his sourcesor the dialects concerned, though the rangeof cognates in some cases might lead us tosuspect that terms from a number of different dialects are included. ThusSabuni's "mula" (
Parinari excelsa
) is giventhe following Shambaa variants by Sangai:
, witha short or single vowel, is identified bySangai as the Zigua version of the name,though it is difficult to judge how reliableeither his or Sabuni’s transcription is in thiscase. Another factor which can complicate

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