An Essay - Preface to the Field Glossary

by Reed Ellis Aubin

As market forces erode subsistence lifestyles and drive millions toward new forms of poverty, more and more Spanish-speakers migrate north to work the fields of the United States and Canada. Crossing the same borders, North Americans head southward in greater numbers as well, some fleeing the cold or perhaps the culture of the supermarket, some curious about a way of life that is closer to the land, some determined to help revitalize societies and landscapes that have been ravaged by centuries of exploitation. Whatever the motive or direction of the movement, each must learn to speak about working with the land in a foreign tongue. And more and more, throughout North and South America, farmers and organizations are employing alternative agricultural techniques which are sensitive to the ecological impacts of cultivation.

One morning in Nicaragua, North American, European, and Central American students filed out of a palm-thatched classroom, looking for coffee. In this bilingual agriculture class, a visiting farmer from North America had just concluded his lecture about use of organic pesticides, such as neem, as an alternative to chemical application. I was working as an interpreter, and Antonio, a local farmer, took me aside to ask a question. “Look,” he said, “when we had to go away to the mountains and the war, we were young chemical products were just coming on the scene. So we learned only the new ways to farm, spraying everything, and never learned the old way. Now, I have to buy these products every season, and my father says that the land doesn’t even produce as well as before, and what’s more, now I have been told that the chemicals are bad for our health. And I can see very clearly with my eyes that we have health problems here. My wife, for example. . . Listen, what you have to understand is that I want to grow without chemicals, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid. Why? Because what happens if the rice doesn’t make it? If my rice gets ruined, what are we going to eat? Well look, my question is this: what are we supposed to do?"

Taken aback by his rapid-fire summary of one of the quintessential problems of rural Latin America, I suggested that he talk with the visiting farmers, and offered my interpreting services. He was distrustful. Even with an interpreter, he didn’t feel comfortable voicing his question, especially not in a classroom. Like many campesinos in Nicaragua, he left school after fourth grade to work the fields with his father. He had appreciated and understood the neem techniques, he said, but he was sure that these consultants would not understand him and his situation.

Not every interaction between North Americans and Latin Americans occurs over such a linguistic and cultural abyss. More times than I can count, I have seen campesinos teaching northern college students to sharpen a machete, striking a delicate balance between riotous laughter and watchful care. This sort of instruction is possible without a mutual understanding of the words for ‘sharp,’ ‘shaving,’ and ‘blood,’ but when the language is there, it is all so much easier. With a healthy and relevant vocabulary, the conversation that begins with the machete lesson may progress to a discussion of the more profound problems faced by those who work the land.

I compiled this glossary because I want people to be able to communicate better, in the field, at a workbench, over coffee and tortillas. I have seen how Latin Americans and North Americans alike show tremendous desire to learn each others’ language. Pulling out a little book containing the right terms at the right time can go a long way as more and more complex ideas are traded back and forth. This book is designed to call our attention to language and to invite us to participate in it more richly as we work alongside foreign friends in the natural world. It is a nerdy travel companion, enamored of the poetry of everyday speech, and the diverse, handy, land-based vocabulary that is alive in oral and written traditions of the American continent.

Throughout my travels, I find that people who lack formal education undervalue and even belittle the dazzling richness of their language, taking as evidence that their way of speaking is not found in books. Compiling norms of usage unconsciously reinforces this perception of linguistic inferiority, and marginalized groups remain out of the game entirely. As members of an elite with access to means of reproduction, we linguists have a responsibility to create feedback loops that respect the living aspect of language in all its diversity. While many of this glossary’s terms have been culled from agricultural books and other documents, a great many more were learned in the country: pointing, asking, and listening. And while many local versions of a word may not be listed here, it is the act of making an approximation that will lead to the uncovering of a local variant.

Word forms often vary from one valley to another, especially those denoting non-commodity items and plants that are native or exceptionally useful. I have encountered more than 20 different Spanish names (excluding indigenous language) for the agroforestry all-star Gliricidia sepium, many formed with elegant metaphor: cacaonace (“cocoa is born”), madre de cacao (“mother of cocoa,” which is the most common English name). Only the most common are listed in this glossary, but have a look at CATIE’s El Arbol al Servicio del Agricultor for a good list and country breakdown (Geilfus,1994). When we consider this pragmatic context, the social, cultural and political reality of language, we see the infinite regional diversity of meaning as the true substance of language. Lexicographers catalogue linguistic meaning, but do so in order to orient us toward its infinite expressive possibilities.

A text that attempts to describe such a vast system must make provisions for what is inevitably left out. I have tried to include words of greatest use and geographical range, but in your travels you will certainly find words and phrases with more natural elegance or which capture a phenomenon more precisely. At the bottom of each page a “Notes” section invites you to improve and expand the word list. While this book represents a great deal of time and effort on my part, the general practice of making lists of words is not just for linguists, it’s something anybody can do, and should feel entitled to do. This glossary is a living document, seeking to celebrate language as an expansive and democratic system. The goal is not a reduction to the most accurate or general terms, but an explosion of one document into thousands of individualized lists as each copy travels through the wordscape. Language, at its heart, does not belong to the writers of dictionaries. The purpose of language is to meet human needs, and as such, it belongs most dearly to those who use it with the immediacy of bringing nourishment and shelter to their communities. Please, edit at will.

English, at present, is the language of power, and therefore, of great empowerment. However, much of the current teaching model remains complacent to churn out a subordinate bilingual labor force. It is a profound hope that Latin Americans learning English might be developing a skill for their own regional self-sufficiency rather than for tenuous migrant work in el Norte or to serve as a middle manager for a multinational corporation setting up sweatshops in the dehumanizing new Free Trade zones. Business, political, and community words in English are indispensable in order to seize a negotiating voice in the current global economy, and an English vocabulary of ecology and farming words facilitates agricultural exchanges with foreign visitors, to say nothing of the other cultural benefits that speaking another language may bring.

For the English speaker, Spanish may be the first step toward speaking other tongues on the continent and cultivating a more profound place-based understanding. There is a lot of mileage within Spanish however; from the Sacramento valley to the maquiladoras of El Salvador, to those whose indigenous language and heritage have been all but erased, cultures call for help with their expression in any language.

Just as the migrant worker’s quest for a better life becomes a pilgrimage to a promised land of opportunity, many northerners who travel to Latin America are fundamentally changed in their basic assumptions about life on Planet Earth. Language is crucial. To the Spanish speaker, English presents itself as a source of economic success. At the same time, families feel the challenge to protect their children’s Mother Tongue from the assault of a mediocre global culture conducted mainly in English. For North Americans, a passive doctrine of monolingualism isolates us from meaningful interaction with the rest of the world, and we are taught that speaking multiple languages is for the exceptionally talented. But, as Gary Snyder reminds us, being multilingual is “neither rare nor difficult (Snyder, 1990).” Throughout history, humans have learned multiple tongues in order to strengthen regional bonds, and to seek the trade resources, skilled artisan traditions, technology, friendship, and kinship of their neighbors. You have in your hand a tool for these same local and global goals.

Reed Ellis Aubin

December 2005

Port Townsend, Washington