09 April 2004

Morobe Field Diary, December 1976: Swimming in Fish Names

Things are getting pretty busy for me now. Finishing up the lexicon and trying to get some of the half-dozen or more texts people haven't gotten around to giving me. Only two weeks to work's end and I'm paranoid that I've left out something important grammatically that the texts won't solve for me. Grammatical elicitation the way we did in Field Methods class is nearly impossible with informants as unschooled as most of mine. I don't like it or trust it anyway. I prefer texts but people are very reluctant to give me stuff off the top of their heads, especially if it's cultural info -- they want someone authoritative to accompany them in the telling or else they practice first and wear out their interest in that so they are not keen on repeating it again for the tape.

Lately I've worn out my patience with eliciting fish names from two huge tomes -- one quite authoritative ([Munro's 1967] Fishes of New Guinea) but with inadequate (i.e. only B&W) pictures; the other (Guide to Fishes, an Aussie book) has good pictures (in color and [of] live [fish]) but is not well-arranged and not exhaustive and shows little of the relative size so a snapper can be called an anchovy. Combine that with some hard to distinguish subgroupings of fish (esp. among goatfish, trevallies and sea bass) and imperfect but confident knowledge of most everyone and the result is an incredibly frustrating job trying to match Nu. to genera & species. I am interested in folk classification and its relation to academic classification and was prepared for some difference but mostly the correlation between the two is pretty good (after I've filtered out misnamings which I can often tell are wrong because they cross genus or family lines). In some families there are names for the majority of individual species -- some grouped together, usually on the basis of markings when shape is the same: mottled, banded, striped; and often on the basis of habitat.

The big men [usually elders] are supposed to be the authorities (on everything: even ladies underwear if it was anything elaborate probably) but they often can't see the page clearly. Everyone is convinced that others don't know what they're talking about and that a consensus (20 people going thru 20 fishnames for 3 hours is impossible) will solve everything. I'm well past the point of diminishing returns but some still come volunteer to straighten it all out for me (and give yet another name to some picture beside which I've scribbled 3 names already). For most now I have statistics like 4 for, 2 against (or 2 for 1 name, 1 each for the others) so I've told them I don't want anything more about fish to upset me. On the whole the world of Nu. fish naming is as unsettled as the world of zoological taxonomy when it comes to species. Genera & families work out OK. I figure (or hope) my effort is worthwhile: it not only boosts my dictionary considerably but is an area that is worth comparing carefully with other Austronesian names & classificatory systems since they are most all sea people.

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