Losing a name and a species is like losing an entire memory -- a slice of science, but also, a slice of marvel

There are many words for nature which are musical—they express, rather than just state. These are words with sensation, words with a prickle, words that work your imagination when you hear them

Neha SinhaNeha Sinha   18 Sep 2019 10:34 AM GMT

Losing a name and a species is like losing an entire memory -- a slice of science, but also, a slice of marvel

Language is shared wealth; it doesn't work if we keep it just to us; it works because it becomes a common heritage, and thus a common force. Losing a name and a species is losing an entire memory--a slice of science, but also, a slice of marvel

Do you like your name? Or, do you feel it could have been more grand, or less pretentious, or more unusual and less common?

A curious word in Bangla and English suggests how names have come from nature. The word is 'toadstool' and it is poetry. If you say the word to a little girl, she would immediately imagine that toadstools — a kind of poisonous mushroom — are made for toads to have tea on. Perhaps they take biscuits with their tea, she would imagine.

Correspondingly, tell her the word for toadstool in Bengali is 'Bengerchatta' which means toad's umbrella, and the word for mushroom or toadstool in Hindi is also 'chatta' or 'chattri' (umbrella). These are imaginative words that come from understanding nature. Toads and frogs often come out in the rain, and long spells of rain will lead to the growth of mushrooms and toadstools. So, it's not unusual to see a toad near a mushroom.

There are many other Hindi words for nature which are musical—and they express, rather than just state. 'Tateri' is the word for the Red-wattled lapwing, an energetic bird that always has something to say. The name comes from just one thing – the call of the lapwing, the high-pitched and loud 'tateri tateri!'.

If you hear the tateri — usually calling at twilight and night --- you would think the bird is calling loudly to its friends to join it for a forbidden party. It sounds like an excited teenager. Then there is the 'chuimui' or the touch-me-not, a plant with delicate, feathery leaves and an intricate, pink puff-ball of a flower; the leaves will shut the moment you touch them. Chuimui would mean sensitive to touch; both the English and Hindi names give out the same feeling.

These are words with sensation, words with a prickle, words that work your imagination when you hear them.

A perfectly camouflaged frog on the forest floor. Photo: Neha SinhaA perfectly camouflaged frog on the forest floor. Photo: Neha Sinha

It is still the rainy season and it is the time for frogs. Let's cast our mind to new frog names. These names are new because the frogs are new — to science, and thus to the world. But of course, the forest already knew the frogs were around. For us though, two new frog discoveries in a year mean that we must keep our heritage safe; there are many more christenings to be done and marvelled at.

The first frog belongs to a whole new group, and this group is called the Mysticellus. The name refers to the mystery around this frog, discovered in the Western Ghats. Mysticellus means secretive in Latin. The Delhi University team that found this frog say the frog was found quite close to people — but has remained hidden from us all these years. If you ask a child, she may be quick to say that is because Mysticellus was hiding behind toadstools!

The second frog, also discovered in the Western Ghats this year, is the Astrobatrachus kurichiyana. The frog is named for the kind of markings it wears. It is covered in spots that look like stars in a clear, velvety sky. Thus, the name, 'astrobatrachus'. Kurichiyana meanwhile is named in honour of the local community of kurichiya, that lives in Kerala. This frog, discovered by a team from Indian Institute of Science loves leaves — it lives under leaf litter on the forest floor. Like the Mysticellus, it is known from only one location.

If we lose the habitat in these locations, we lose these species. And thus, we lose the language to express the species. Language isn't just words. Like tateri, language is an emotion, a thought; something deeply felt, and then exchanged. Language is 'vicharon ka aadanpradaan' as we would say in Hindi. Language is shared wealth; it doesn't work if we keep it just to us; it works because it becomes a common heritage, and thus a common force. Losing a name and a species is losing an entire memory -- a slice of science, but also, a slice of marvel.

The Vyadh Patang, the Picturewing Dragonfly. Photo: Neha SinhaThe Vyadh Patang, the Picturewing Dragonfly. Photo: Neha Sinha

I often wonder what names we can give our modern species which have learnt to live with human excesses. The plastic-eating cow. The garbage-bellied dog. The lamp-post crow. The government-office Rock Pigeon. The Delhi Cockroach. The Mumbai-sewage Starfish. The beaten leopard. The selfie-Gir lion. The paparazzi-struck tiger.

If I tell these names to the little girl, she may become sad. These are not names with the purity of 'mendak ki chattri'. But then, as I see plastic waste spread out on rivers like a memory that will never die, and pesticide strewn over the land like a curse, I am filled with the urge to start over and create a better world.

Till we change our ways, what we have is language. And the memories of the words we must never forget; words with charm and bite. Like saanp ki mousi (meaning the snake's aunt, a reference to a skink which is actually a lizard, not a snake), the kaath birali (cat of the trees, a reference to the squirrel in Bengali), the Godawan (the Great Indian Bustard), vyaadh patang (meaning hunters kite, or the dragonfly, which is a nimble hunter) and the Nilgai (Asia's largest antelope, that owes it name to the fact that it is the size of a cow, and has a bluish body).

If the little girl wants to know though, my favourite word still is: chattri, for mushroom. Because you never know what you will find underneath.

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society

(Views are personal)

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