chapter  6
22 Pages

Alibangbang and ecologies of local language practices

Two different language practices in which I engage fairly regularly are fishand rope-naming. When underwater, scuba diving is not in itself a very talkative domain, and the local, nonverbal language practices we engage in are limited. Once back on the surface, however, the unvoiced experiences of a long dive may need quick relocalization in discourse. Talk of fish is common: Did you see the Yellow Masked Angel Fish under the rock? What was that fish with the blue and yellow stripes? The one I saw had a high dorsal fin, and so on. In the more formal contexts of fish identification that I do as part of reef conservation projects in the Philippines1 (we’re supposed to know the name of that fish with the blue and yellow stripes), there are more specific language practices involved particularly with species identification. One of the problems here, however, is that fish tend to get called many different things in different languages, and even within the same language. A difficulty with gaining knowledge about shark attacks (which in itself is not a good term, since although attacks remain a concern for those of us that swim in certain waters, they are more often instances of shark taste tests), for example, is that they are known by different names in different waters. The Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) in Australian waters is also known as the Whaler shark, the Zambezi shark (or Zambi) in South Africa, the Ganges shark in India, and the Nicaragua shark in Central America. Take the family of Chaetodontidae (from the Greek for brush and teeth),

of which there are about 120 species globally. Popularly known as Butterflyfish in English, these particularly colourful tropical fish are significant indicators of the state of a coral reef: since they feed on coral polyps, their abundance and diversity can be a measure of coral health. Their names vary from language to language and also from region to region. The Threadfin Butterflyfish – Chaetodon Auriga (auriga: charioteer, groom) – named in English after its long filament running from the dorsal fin, is known in French as Chaetodon Cocher (cocher: a coachman), in German as Fähnchen-Falterfisch (Falter: butterfly (an alternative to Schmetterling) and Fähnchen – the diminutive form of Fahne, a flag, meaning banner or pennant),

and in Japanese as トゲチヨウチヨウウオ (togechouchouuo) (トゲ spike; チョウチョウ butterfly; ウオ fish). While these names all draw attention in different languages to the salient feature of the dorsal fin – as a thread, whip, pennant or spike – in other instances, as we shall see later, different aspects of different fish contribute to the mutiplicity of naming practices. Rope-naming is something I do when sailing (if I am not below the water, I

like at least to be on it). And sailing, as many know, has a vast range of particular terms and language practices. This is not so much a question of rope identification in the same way that we need to identify fish species, but rather of the relocalization in language of the complex practices of managing a sailing boat. It may surprise non-sailors, for example, that there are in fact no ropes on a boat (except possibly a bell rope – the hanging rope used to ring a traditional ship’s bell): there are halyards, sheets, shrouds, stays, reefing lines, painters, topping lifts, boom vangs, downhauls and many more. Woebetide a novice sailor who asks What’s this rope for? Only to be met with a vituperative response from a bearded, weather-beaten sailing master on the names of things on a boat (There are no bloody ropes on a boat (except maybe a bell rope)). Now, also of interest is that in French, for example, there is no cordage (rope) on a boat either, only un étai (stay), un hale-bas (vang or downhaul), un hauban (shroud), une drisse (halyard), une écoute (sheet), une amarre (painter) and so on. I shall return to the significance of this observation later.