Plant Talk

The Language of Land and Life: Preserving Traditional Plant Knowledge by Studying an Endangered Language in Mexico

Posted in Environment & Conservation , History & People on June 16, 2021, by Alex McAlvay

Alex McAlvay, Ph.D., is the Kate E. Tode Assistant Curator of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.

Side-by-side images of pink flowers and green, clover-like leaves

Both Begonia gracilis (left) and Oxalis alpina (right) share a name in the Wixárika language: Tsinarixa, which refers to the sourness of the edible leaves in both genera.

Central Mexico is a global hotspot for language and plant diversity, but it also faces many rapid environmental and cultural changes. To address declining biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, I am launching a new project with a team of specialists to help preserve traditional plant knowledge and language in west-central Mexico.

Supported by a recent three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we will be documenting Wixárika, an endangered Uto-Aztecan language also known as Huichol. Wixárika culture is widely recognized for its body of traditional ecological knowledge, which is integrated not only into its cosmology and art but also its language as it relates to plant use and management.

The Wixárika communities in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains have maintained strong ties to their traditional farming practices, use of wild edible and medicinal plants, and sustainable management of plant resources. However, migration, integration with non-Wixárika cultures, monolingual Spanish schools, and social stigma have reduced native speakers of Wixárika to fewer than 47,000 individuals and threatened traditional knowledge and practices.

Our project, The Language of Land and Life: Connecting Language and Ecology in Wixárika, seeks to contribute to the documentation, preservation, and revitalization of the Wixárika language and plant traditions. We will study how traditional knowledge is encoded in language, including knowledge about plant species, their characteristics, where they grow, their uses, and their relationships with other species—information that will contribute to local cultural continuity, conservation of threatened plant species and ecosystems, and the scholarly understanding of language in general.

Joining me in this project are NYBG postdoctoral fellow Stefanie Ramos-Bierge, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and specializes in the Wixárika language, and two linguists and language activists from the community, Tutupika Carrillo de la Cruz and Gabriel Pacheco. The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts, the Autonomous University of Nayarit, and the University of Guadalajara are collaborating institutions.

Our research will result in an online multimedia database of Wixárika plant lore and language for the community, hours of recordings of native speakers, and educational materials for language revitalization efforts. Another outcome will be the growth of a global network and conference called “Plants, Animals, Words,” which will unite efforts of botanists, zoologists, linguists, and others working at the intersection of language and the natural world.

Linguists predict that more than 30 percent of the world’s 7,000-plus languages will be extinct by the end of the century. Especially endangered are words related to the natural world as wild areas are transformed and people move to urban centers, losing touch with traditional subsistence practices. We hope that our project will help make it possible for a language that has developed a vocabulary steeped in local plant knowledge to avoid this fate. 

To learn more about The Language of Land and Life: Connecting Language and Ecology in Wixárika, visit the project’s webpage.


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