Research update: Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth

Swallow illustration
Karen Park

Bringing together scholars from linguistics, anthropology, ornithology, and conservation practice, our international and inter-institutional research team is investigating the relationship between creativity in human languages and the diverse environments in which they are spoken.

A central theme in our research is biocultural diversity. Research in biocultural diversity concerns correlations among linguistic, cultural, and biological systems. There is an intuitive logic to these correlations – both species and languages evolve in relation to place and, frequently, geographical barriers contributing to the formation of new species equally lead to linguistic diversification. Moreover, language encodes the values and knowledge of its community of speakers and, where livelihood is closely linked to place, this knowledge has strong geographical biases.

Yet, ecosystems, languages, and local knowledge systems are eroding alongside increasing urbanization, environmental change, and technological advancement.  We urgently need to understand core baselines of natural and cultural diversity, and the intrinsic connections between them. 

Together we have been working to document and map core baselines of biocultural diversity and apply our research to the development of new models of biological and linguistic conservation and documentation. Our long-term project goals include locally-informed language documentation, mapping of ornithological and linguistic data, large scale on-the-ground testing and investigation of assumed biocultural correlations, and investigation into how the links between language and environment change as cultural values change (especially with respect to technology and urbanization). 

Taking into account long-established conservation networks, as well as an ubiquitous global  presence and cultural relevance, birds serve as an especially apt lens through which to pursue this research. Our work incorporates ongoing development of an online public-facing, interactive database of linguistic, geographic, cultural, and ornithological knowledge (the Ethno-Ornithological World Atlas) and encourages the formation of an international and inter-institutional network of scholars and practitioners. This work has enabled us to explore biocultural diversity correlations on a uniquely global scale with exciting potential for both scholarship and conservation practice. 

Flyways: mapping bird names and folklore

Bird migration paths link a multitude of diverse languages and cultures and we use this fact to inform our understanding of how different cultures encode a shared experience within their own unique language systems. By collecting the names and folklore of migrating birds across the diverse communities that comprise their flyways, we are creating a dataset that provides interesting insight into lexical processes involved in naming as well as language contact, borrowing, and change.

In this vein, Dr. Felice Wyndham and Dr. Karen Park, working with a team of six undergraduate research assistants from the University of Pittsburgh, have created a database of names and folklore associated with five iconic birds in the Africa-Eurasia Flyway – the stork, cuckoo, swallow, swift, and bee-eater.  In the near future we will be complementing this data with a parallel dataset encompassing the Pacific Americas flyway.

In collaboration with partners on the story maps team at Esri (a world leader in graphic information system mapping) we have recently begun developing interactive maps that will allow a general audience to engage with our data.

Local Contexts: from Paraguay to Kenya

Our research also explores the ways systems of understanding environments are articulated from individual, local, and place-based experience to national, regional, and international levels of policy and practice. In this thread Dr. Felice Wyndham was awarded additional funding from the British Academy to carry out a case study of linguistic and cultural values in Paraguayan bird conservation, via a focused ecolinguistic ethnography with Ayoreo and Yshir communities in the northeastern Chaco region. 

The research explores the role of language, creative humanities, and indigenous expertise in ecology, conservation, and development and the findings will contribute to ongoing policy, scholarly, and educational conservations in Paraguay, regionally, and internationally. One key contribution is the creation of a lasting communication pathway for language and cultural values to enter policy conservations at the highest levels by bridging between the Ethno-Ornithology World Atlas (EWA) and BirdLife International’s World Bird Databases (WBDB).

Dr. Fanshawe and Dr. Park have equally been pursuing these themes of ecological knowledge systems in local context within Dr. Fanshawe’s Kenyan bird conservation networks.  More specifically relating to the theme of biocultural conservation, they have been working within the Kenyan network to compile a locally-informed, on-the-ground understanding of the geographic distribution of the languages spoken and Kenya and how they intersect with Key Biodiversity Areas and Important Bird and Biodiveristy Areas.

Holistic Conservation

On a global scale, our research has been engaging more and more with the theme of global language documentation and holistic biocultural conservation. A long-term desired objective of this work involves the application of EWA and our global networks to the development of a local-to-global networked approach to language documentation linked to existing conservation networks. This will result in both a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the world’s linguistic diversity and a more culturally informed approach to conservation.  

Our ‘Local Contexts’ research has been laying the groundwork for this endeavor. We have also been networking with scholars and practitioners who have a long history of working on questions of language documentation, language policy, and conservation and have been awarded funding from the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Studies Center to hold a Language Documentation Workshop in early Spring 2019 and a Biocultural Diversity Conference in 2019.

Karen Park is Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics, University of Pittsburgh and Co-Investigator on our 2nd strand: Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth

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