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In the field last year I meticulously gathered photos with audio recordings of many plants in the area I was working in PNG. I certainly don't like creating lexicon entries all with a gloss of "tree/plant species" and I figured in this digital age, including a picture and audio recording of each plant was one way of increasing the identifiability of each plant (and animal... but they're not so photogenic). Pictures are a much more salient identifier for speakers of the language than anything else. Never-the-less, scientific name are a good universal identifier for a plant, but they're hard to get if you don't have a botanist with you.

So earlier this year I sat down with Barry Conn at the National Herbarium of New South Wales to discuss interdisciplinary work between linguists and botanists. One of my questions was "what does a linguist need to do in the field to get a plant identified?".

Here are some of my notes from the meeting, with some comments from Barry:

Botany is primarily conducted through the meticulous gathering of physical samples, however, digital cameras are increasingly used in the field, and digital media and metadata has some unexpected secondary uses in botany.

Identifiability from Photos

Barry estimated that less than 30% of plants could be identified from photos. Usually there is a number of features that the botanist is looking for. The best way to identify a plant is to gather several samples. There are rough guidelines for each different class of plant, which I hope I can post up here later. Digital photos are not able to capture the finer details such as the spikes on the underside of a leaf, nor do they show the inside of the plant. For this reason when finer detail is needed to differentiate one plant from another, digital photos will not suffice.

Secondary information

The typical workflow for a botanist working in the field is to gather a sample, the date, time, location and the name of the plant in the local language. Unfortunately for Linguists, the name of the language is not gathered with the label itself.

Comment from Barry: Frequently the name of the language is not gathered, but I am sure that a reason percentage of these data would be usable because the name of the language could be derived a posteriori

Because these languages will not often have an easily recognised phonology this is often garbled in the English orthography, which means that different fieldworkers will record different names for the same plant. Fortunately, these variations can often be systematic. Such as a voiced/voiceless alternation such as p/b or k/g (eg, one fieldworker may hear “paka” while the other may hear “baga” when in fact they’re the same word). Vowels are a slightly more complex issue.

Botanists are interested in more than just gathering a sample at the time. They may need to see the plant fruiting or flowering to make a positive identification. Or they may be interested in the general
time of flowering or fruiting in a region. For this reason, a digital photo, with a timestamp, rough GPS reference and a “flower” tag can actually be quite useful, even if the plant can’t be identified.

Photos of the same plant over time gives the botanist an idea of its seasonal variation. If the name of the plant in the local language is provided, this may help identify plants as well.

The size of a plant is extremely useful. At the very least throwing down a coin in a photo can give a rough idea of scale, or ideally a colour scale could give scale and allow for colour correction.

Botanists are interested in the distribution of plants as well. Where the plant is easily recognised, the location of the plant becomes interesting information. Indeed, even the most common plants are of
interest, and these may be extremely easily recognised. In a distribution map of that plant, if the plant is well outside of the recorded distribution, this may mean that the distribution map needs to be revised or that it is in fact a different species.

Botanists are also interested in the local significance of a plant. For instance, does it have medicinal uses? Is it used for building structures? Does it have some special role in the ecology? What is the taxonomy used to classify the plant locally. These are questions that linguists and anthropologists ask as well (as well as Ethno-Botanists).

Metadata and Digital workflow

Cross-disciplinarily, photos of plants would maximally have the following metadata recorded in the field (or pre-archiving):

a) time and place
b) name of the plant in the local language
c) rough classification (tree, shrub, herb, liane (vine))
d) rough features (flowering, fruiting, seeds, leaves…)
e) rough description of the local significance of the plant
f) Scientific name (at the time of archival)

From a botanists perspective the following is also important:

g) a sample of the plant
h) scale (either whatever is on hand, or preferably a colour scale)
i) a fine grained description of the plant

From a linguistic perspective, recording the local name should also include:

j) the name of the informant
k) the name of the language as reported by the speaker
l) the place that he was born, grew up and lives
m) his age and approximate language proficiency

Items (a) – (i) relate specifically to the plant. This data needs to be closely coupled with the archival object (the photo). I’m not sure if there’s a way of referencing a physical sample… Barry, are samples indexed in a database somewhere that’s linkable? Items (j) – (m) (and perhaps (a)) is information relating to, or perhaps grouped under, the notion of a work session. (e) may also be better placed under a work session grouping, especially information relating to local taxonomies.

Comment from Barry:
All botanical collections are given a unique reference identifier, often there is more than one (one which links the object to the collector and one that links the specimen to the herbarium in which it is held. Also, there is an internal reference number applied automatically by the collections database which links all other identifiers together.

By the way, check out the excellent PNGTrees Project, which Barry is one of the principal investigators of.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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