Ecology Chennai

Marine creatures come alive in the language of the common people

A Bibron’s skink in Valmiki Nagar. It is known as ‘neithal aranai’ in Tamil because the species is found exclusively in coastal habitats, especially those marked by sand dunes. Photo: Nanditha Ram Satagopan  

Landscape and language make up a virtuous circle. Through the human interface, they actively shape each other and are also open to being shaped.

M Yuvan, author of A Naturalist’s Journal, puts his understanding of this connection succinctly. “Landscapes birth languages. You experience a landscape vividly through the language it has birthed,” he remarks.

A landscape dictates the language necessary to describe its various constituents. For example, in a land-locked region, coastal terminology would hardly seep into everyday conversation. Language can however enrich the aspects of a landscape through imaginative metaphors.

The conversation with Yuvan unfolds around Madras Naturalists’ Society’s recently-released online field guide on Chennai’s coastal fauna. To be exact, the vernacular names borne by the 128 species showcased pictorially in it.

A good number of these common names encrypt the local fishing communities’ homespun wisdom, their quotidian concerns and even a sense of history. In this manner, the names give these creatures a dash of colour that outshines what they already possess.

Here is a striking example.

Bailer’s shell

What fisherfolk on the Chennai coast and elsewhere call the Indian volute (melo melo) in their everyday language is dictated by its functionalities

“In Kovalam and Pulicat, this marine gastropod mollusc can be mistaken for a coconut shell. The Indian volute is called Bailer’s Shell and in the vernacular, pathiram sangu because before plastic arrived on the scene, fisherfolk traditionally used it to measure salt, sugar, wheat and everything. After the snail has been removed, the shell is reasonably capacious, with a holding capacity of about half-a-litre. In small boats, the fisherfolk carry it to scoop out water,” explains Yuvan.

Usually, coastal creatures are named on the basis of their similitude to objects in the fisherfolk’s immediate environment.

“Fisherfolk call cones, which incidentally are extremely venomous, vazha-poo (banana flower). You take the olive sea snails; they are called cowangi, which is the fisherfolk’s name for kovakkai (ivy gourd),” he points out.

In contrast, when a creature plays no role in their lives, fisherfolk may not have a unique name for it, through the creature may be ecologically unique and significant to their environment.

Yuvan cites the example of the Bibron’s skink (eutropis bibronii), which is just aranai (skink) to the fisherfolk. Naturalists could rechristen such creatures with a qualifier to bring out the light of their significance. During the making of the field guide, the young naturalists from MNS have had to resort to such measures on a few occasions.

“Bibron’s skink is not a well-known species, and it is so small it would fit in one’s palm. We kept the name neithal aranai as it lives only in coastal sandy habitats, particularly those marked by sand dunes. Neithal refers to landscapes that go with the seas.”

Eutropis bibroniione of two skinks bearing the common name ‘Bibron’s skink’ — is endemic to the Indian and Sri Lankan coast, with only slivers of land making up its distribution range. Given this fact, assigning a meaningful name in the vernacular to them is a highly significant act in terms of conservation.

Gastropods as currency

In some fishing communities of Tamil Nadu, the marine mollusc cowry would be called kaasu soli (money cowry) in reference to a practice long forgotten and discontinued even longer ago.

Soli is the Tamil name for cowry.

“Soli would be used as makeshift dice in indigenous games usually played in coastal areas. Before copper currency was in circulation in these parts, small gastropods were used as currencies of trade. The name having stuck, cowry is even now called kaasu soli,” says Yuvan.

Multiple realities

The names marine creatures pick up as they hit the shores can sometimes be location-specific, even to the point of appearing highly hyperlocal.

“A marine creature may be known by a common name in Adyar, and another in Pulicat,” states Yuvan

When it comes to coastal fauna, being known by a multiplicity of common names in not uncommon.

“Common names are fluid. When something has many names, you can view it from different realities,” observes Yuvan and illustrates it with the case of the Octopus. Among the fisherfolk in Chennai and the rest of the TN coast, the creature is known as “kundhal kanava, as its tentacles appear to be like wind-tossed hair when it swims”. And as pei kanava, as it also appear to be ghost-like in certain pairs of eyes.

The Indian Backwater Oyster is known as killinjal in fisherfolk’s workaday parlance. Here is why.

“Coral reefs look beautiful. Oyster reeds look asymmetrical, amorphous, jagged and sharp. They are sharp to the point of tearing fishing nets as they get dragged. Nets torn by oyster reeds is a familiar reality for fisherfolk and that is how the latter came to be called killinjal, a word signifying something that is torn,” the naturalist elucidates.

More to a name

Habitat conservation does not happen in a vacuum. It springs organically from an awareness of a habitat’s various facets.

Here is how Yuvan explains the objective of the field-guide project: “If you go to a beach and you know 50 different species out there, being able to name them, it has an active place in your imagination. Your identity expands to include that place as well. If you are 10 years old and you can identify 100 things around you, the place becomes magical and your selfhood stretches to include all of that as part of your identity.”

Knowing a creature by more than one name increases one’s familiarity with it. By extension, the engagement with its habitat is enhanced. Add to this, the various anthropological stories that go with these names, the relationship with these creatures and the landscape are further deepened. And that marks the bedrock of all great conservation stories.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 2:51:00 AM |

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