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Men’s language, women’s language January 8th, 2017 by

In most countries, men and women have different styles of speaking. But is it possible for a community to have two completely different languages, one for men and one for women, not just for one generation, but sustained for a long time?

caribbeanIf such diglossia (a dual language system) is possible, imagine the decisions one would have to make while engaging with such a community. Makers of educational videos might have to make two soundtracks for a single community. An agricultural extensionist would have to choose which language to use for a talk.

caribbean-lesser-antillesAs strange as it may seem, at least one society did come close to having two, gender-based languages, which were spoken over several generations.  In the 17th century, the people of the Caribbean Island of Dominica told a story that they said took place some generations before the coming of the Europeans, when the islands of the Lesser Antilles had been inhabited by people who spoke an Arawak language. Then the islands were attacked by canoe-loads of men who spoke a Carib language. The invaders killed the local men, and then settled down with the women.

The two languages were extremely different, but the children born after the invasion grew up speaking both of them. All children learned the Arawak language of their mothers, but when the boys became teenagers they started spending more time with the men, and began to speak Carib among themselves. The Islanders developed a version of Carib that became a language for men only.

In 1665, Father Raymond Breton, a French missionary, published a two-volume dictionary of the language then spoken on the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent. The dictionary specified whether each word was used by men, or by women.

Various scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of the Carib invasion story. It is possible that the men’s language originated through trade or migration.  We will never know if Carib men of the 13th century once rampaged across the island beaches, murdering Arawak men and capturing women. There is no historical or archaeological evidence for (or against) this story. Yet the linguistic data are well documented. There is no doubt that in the 1650s, over much of the Lesser Antilles, men and women spoke in two remarkably different codes. The two genders used the same sounds, and most of the same grammar, but men’s words were from Carib, and women’s words were from Arawak. (The men could speak the women’s language, and would speak it when socializing with women. The men’s language was only used between men).

If you could time travel to the Island of Dominica in the 17th century, and were able to speak the full range of men’s and women’s languages, a talk with the whole community would sooner or later switch to the women’s language, because it was everyone’s first tongue.

In agricultural extension today, sometimes it helps to create a space where women can easily speak up, so that their concerns can be addressed. It is easy to start to think that men and women are very different, but it is also worth remembering that in some ways we are the same, and that language can unite us.

Further reading

Allaire, Louis 1980 “On the Historicity of Carib Migrations in the Lesser Antilles.” American Antiquity 45(2):238-245.

Boucher, Philip P. 2009 Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492–1763. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, Dave D. and R. Christopher Goodwin 1990 “Island Carib Origins: Evidence and Nonevidence.” American Antiquity 55(1):37-48.

Taylor, Douglas 1954 “Diachronic Note on the Carib Contribution to Island Carib.” International Journal of American Linguistics 20(1):28-33.

Taylor, Douglas R. and Berend J. Hoff 1980 “The Linguistic Repertory of the Island-Carib in the Seventeenth Century: The Men’s Language: A Carib Pidgin?”  International Journal of American Linguistics 46(4):301-312.

Further viewing

Watch a video on women in agricultural extension, here.

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Our younger readers December 18th, 2016 by

Some countries with deeply contrasting linguistic histories are now becoming literate in similar ways. In Nepal and Malawi reading is becoming more common, as governments set up more schools and encourage girls and boys to attend.

Unlike most of Africa and Asia, Nepal was never formally colonized. The British were content to recognize the kingdom and install a British ministry in 1840 to advise on key issues, especially foreign policy. And the British accepted Nepali soldiers, the famous Gurkhas, into the Indian army.

Malawi was colonized, but fairly late. The Scottish missionary-explorer, David Livingstone ambled across what is now Malawi in 1861. The first traders, the African Lakes Company, set up shop in 1878, in Blantyre, and military conquest was complete by 1890.

A country’s literary tradition can be old or recent. Nepali has been written from the very start, since the language first evolved from Sanskrit, which itself had a sophisticated writing system by the second millennium BCE. The languages of Malawi (then called “Nyasaland”) were not written until the 1870s when Scottish missionaries devised scripts (“alphabets”) to translate the Bible. By the 1890s children were learning to read and write in mission schools. In Malawi, a literary heritage of thousands of years had been compressed into a single generation.

juno-gaha-reads-mites-pamphletAn old literary tradition is not necessarily a democratic one. In Nepal, as late as 1900, only 5% of the population could read. Government schools gradually improved. By 1951 the literacy rate was 39%, rising to 58% in 1991. Some of this effort was motivated by a policy to promote the Nepali language at the expense of the others spoken in the country, many of which are entirely unrelated to Nepali, linguistically.

In Malawi there were never enough mission schools to meet the demand from parents who wanted their children to study. Government schools expanded, especially after independence in 1963. The languages of Malawi are all Bantu tongues, and are all fairly closely related to one another. People learn to read in their own language (e.g. Tumbuka or Yao), besides Chichewa, which is the de facto national language.

The world literacy rate (the percentage of people over 15-years-old who can read), is 86% (83% for women). Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world: 65% for Nepal and almost the same for Malawi at 66%. Fewer women are literate, 55% in Nepal and just slightly more, 59%, in Malawi.
I was in Nepal and Malawi this year, and while the school systems are not over-funded, in both countries I was pleasantly surprised to see people reading, even in the countryside. Even people who didn’t go to school usually have someone in the household who can read a document to them. In Nepal, shops advertise their wares in writing on the storefront, and in Malawi, roadside grain buyers scrawl their maize and bean prices onto signs, to attract farmer-sellers.

buying-maize-and-beans-chichewa-languageIn both countries, when extensionists give farmers a piece of paper, their first reaction is to read it. There is room for improvement, e.g. schools need to be better resourced and more girls and women need to be included, but even in some of the poorest parts of the world many more people can read now than in their parents’ day. This is an opportunity for communicating agriculture. It means that agencies can write fact sheets for farmers, as long as the writers can avoid jargon. While videos are an important way of reaching women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, even a DVD of farmer learning videos is enhanced with a bit of writing, such as a cover with a title, and a menu so farmers can choose the videos they want to watch.

World literacy rates have improved so fast that it is much more common for young people to read than for elders (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Let’s make sure that this generation of literate farmers has something appropriate to read about agricultural technology.

Further reading

McCracken, John 2012 A History of Malawi: 1859-1966. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey. 485 pp.

Roser, Max and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina 2016 “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/

Whelpton, John 2005 A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 296 pp.

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Learning from students August 21st, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I like to teach adults, because I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Last week I taught a writing course to a group of Bolivians (mostly agronomists) in Anzaldo, a small town in Cochabamba department. During the five days, students write a fact sheet on a topic for farmers, and then take a draft to the villages, to gather the farmers’ comments. We call this a “farmer peer review”. Eric, Paul and I have used this simple method in many countries to get direct feedback from farmers to make the prose clearer and simplify the technology described in the fact sheet.

My eight students wrote five fact sheets. Juan Vallejos and Maura Lazarte co-authored one on how to prepare the seed of tarwi (the Andean lupine with the edible seeds) with practical tips for getting a bigger harvest from farmer-saved seed.

And on the second of August, Juan, Maura and the other adult students showed up in a village called Phinkina, holding a fact sheet in Spanish, written for Quechua-speaking farmers. We could have written the fact sheets in Quechua. Like any human language, Quechua can be written, but few people know how to read this native language. Quechua people who can read, are literate in Spanish.

As always, I had given the students three options.

First, invite the farmers to read the fact sheet.

Second option, if reviewers can’t read, read the fact sheet out loud to them exactly as it is written.

Third, if the farmer can’t understand the national language (in this case, Spanish), translate the fact sheet for her, word for word, into the local language (Quechua).

leyendo sobre quinua con Juan y EliseoBut sometimes adult students politely ignore your suggestions. In Phinkina, Juan and Maura went to visit a farmer and her two young daughters. Juan speaks fluent Quechua, and he started by asking the farmer if she would read the fact sheet. She said that she didn’t read much, but that she understood some Spanish. But instead of translating the fact sheet, Juan read it to her, one sentence at a time, in Spanish, and then asked her in Quechua what the sentence was about. The farmer began to essentially translate each short sentence into Quechua. It was a systematic way to see which parts of the paper she understood and which phrases needed to be improved.

For example, the farmer explained that she did not understand the difference between “insecticide” and “fungicide.”

And she balked at the description of the dessicated grains. Farmers here say that the dried up grains are “sucked” (chupados) or “empty” (ch’usus).

Later that afternoon, in the neighboring village of Tijrasqa, I watched Maura use the same method to review the fact sheet with another farmer.

For example, when Maura read that the disease attacks in the “early stages” of the plant’s life, the farmer didn’t understand, so Maura explained it.

“Why not say ‘just when the plant comes up?’” the farmer asked. Simple words are often the most powerful.

During the reading, this second farmer cradled a green, plastic bucket in her arm. Tarwi is one of the main crops here, so the fact sheet on tarwi seed held her attention.

A few steps away, children were dancing in the village school, to honor the memory of 2 August 1953, when the Agrarian Reform was signed, in nearby Ucureña, in the Valle Alto.

Maura y Eliseo validandoThe farmer’s bucket was full of chuchusmut’i, which is what tarwi grains are called when they are prepared as a snack food. The farmer had brought them to sell to the parents and teachers at the school. When the farmer finished reviewing the fact sheet she scooped out a generous bag full of chuchusmut’i and proudly handed it to us, as a gift, as though the fact sheet was valuable enough that she wanted to give us something in return.

But we had already been rewarded with the farmers’ suggestions. Later, all the students edited their fact sheets, taking their readers’ ideas on board. The students had learned a valuable lesson about writing for their audience. And I learned a new way to review fact sheets.


Our course was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program, McKnight Foundation www.ccrp.org, with logistical support from the Proinpa Foundation www.proinpa.org.

Further reading

You can download fact sheets and videos at www.accessagriculture.org.

If you need help finding a fact sheet, write to me at jeff@agroinsight.com.



21 de agosto del 2016, por Jeff Bentley

Me gusta enseñar a los adultos, porque aprendemos los unos de los otros.

La semana pasada di un curso de redacción a un grupo de agrónomos y otros profesionales en Anzaldo, un pueblo pequeño en el departamento de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Durante los cinco días del curso, los estudiantes escriben hojas volantes para campesinos, y luego se las llevan a las comunidades, para recibir los comentarios de los comuneros. Es lo que llamamos una “revisión por árbitros agricultores”. Con Eric y Paul hemos usado este sencillo método en muchos países para obtener la retroalimentación directa de los agricultores, la cual nos ayuda a escribir con una prosa más clara y simplificar la tecnología que se describe en la hoja volante.

Esa semana, mis ocho estudiantes escribieron cinco hojas volantes. Juan Vallejos y Maura Lazarte eran los co-autores de una sobre cómo preparar la semilla de tarwi (la lupina andina con las semillas comestibles). Incluyeron sugerencias prácticas sobre cómo cosechar más, con la semilla guardada por los agricultores.

Así que el dos de agosto, Juan, Maura y los otros estudiantes adultos llegaron a la comunidad de Phinkina, llevando sus hojas volantes en castellano, escritas para campesinos que hablan quechua. Podríamos haber escrito las hojas volantes en quechua. Igual que todo idioma humano, el quechua se puede escribir, pero pocas personas saben leer este idioma nativo. Si alguien que habla quechua puede leer, lee en español.  Como siempre, a mis estudiantes adultos les di tres opciones.

Primero, invitar a los campesinos a leer la hoja volante.

Segunda opción, si los árbitros no saben leer, lean la hoja volante para ellos en voz alta, tal como está escrita.

Tercero, si la agricultora no entiende el idioma nacional (en este caso, español), traduzca la hoja volante para ella, palabra por palabra, en el idioma local (quechua).

flor de tarwiFelizmente, mis estudiantes adultos no siembre me hacen caso. En Phinkina, Juan y Maura visitaron a una campesina con sus dos hijitas. Juan habla fluidamente el quechua, y comenzó preguntando a la agricultora si estaría dispuesta a leer la hoja volante. Ella respondió que no sabía leer mucho, pero que sí entendía algo del castellano. Pero en vez de traducir la hoja volante, Juan se la leyó, una oración a la vez, en español, y luego le preguntó en quechua de qué se trataba la oración. La agricultora empezó a más o menos traducir las cortas oraciones al quechua. Era una manera sistemática de ver qué partes de la hoja volante ella entendía y cuáles frases había que mejorarse.

Por ejemplo, la agricultora explicó que no entendía la diferencia entre “insecticida” y “fungicida.”

Rechazó la descripción de los granos desecados. Aquí los campesinos los llaman “chupados” o “ch’usus” (vacíos) a esos granos.

Más tarde, en la comunidad vecina de Tijrasqa, estuve presente cuando Maura usó el mismo método para revisar su hoja volante con otro agricultor.

Por ejemplo, cuando Maura leyó que la enfermedad ataca en las “primeras etapas” del cultivo, la agricultora no entendió, así que Maura se le explicó.

“¿Por qué no decir ‘apenas que salga la planta?’” preguntó la agricultora. Las palabras más sencillas frecuentemente son las más poderosas.

Durante la lectura, esta segunda agricultora tenía en las manos un balde de plástico verde. Tarwi es uno de los cultivos principales aquí, por lo tanto la hoja volante le captó la atención.

A unos pasos, los niños bailaban en su colegio, en honor a la memoria del 2 de agosto del 1953, cuando se firmó la Ley de la Reforma Agraria, no muy lejos de aquí, en Ucureña, en el Valle Alto.

tarwi chuchusmutiEl balde estaba lleno de chuchusmut’i, que son los granos de tarwi preparados para comer como un bocadillo. La agricultora los había traído para vender a los pares y profesores del colegio. Cuando la agricultora terminó de revisar la hoja volante, llenó su tutuma de chuchusmut’i y orgullosamente nos regaló una porción generosa, como si la hoja volante fuera tan valiosa que ella quería agradecernos con algo.

Pero nosotros ya habíamos sido premiados, con las sugerencias de la gente local. Más tarde, los estudiantes adultos editaron sus hojas volantes, tomando en cuenta las ideas de sus lectores. Los estudiantes aprendieron una lección valiosa sobre cómo escribir para su audiencia. Y yo aprendí una nueva manera de revisar las hojas volantes.


Nuestro curso fue auspiciado por el Collaborative Crop Research Program de la Fundación McKnight www.ccrp.org, con el apoyo logístico de la Fundación Proinpa www.proinpa.org.

Lectura adicional

Se puede bajar hojas volantes y videos en la página www.accessagriculture.org.

Si le puedo ayudar a encontrar una hoja volante, escríbame al jeff@agroinsight.com.

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The ruffled reefer June 19th, 2016 by

Reefer (a marijuana cigarette) is the perfect example of a common word with an unknown origin. I heard Richard Diebold say this several times. He was an eminent historical linguist (and one of my mentors). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language noted that the etymology of “reefer” was obscure, but that it might come from the phrase “to reef (i.e. roll up) a sail.” Diebold found this unconvincing. I’ve since learned where the word “reefer” really does come from, but first, a bit of history.

marihuana leavesMarijuana is an old crop, native to Central Asia, where it still grows wild (pictured), and cultivated in China at least 4500 years ago (Zohary et al 2012). It came to the Americas with the early colonists, and it was called “hemp” (or cáñamo, in Spanish). Hemp was grown for fiber, to make sails and rope. The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” is a Mexican invention, according to the authoritative Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, a major reference for Spanish etymology.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but there are many different varieties. In the USA, recreational marijuana arrived with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, following the end of the catastrophic Mexican revolution. The word marijuana was loaned into American English about then. The word “reefer” was well enough established to be used in the title of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which sought to discourage marijuana smoking; the movie was so loaded with errors it became a classic in the annals of disinformation.

In Honduras in the 1980s, I realized that “reefer” came from grifa, a synonym in Spanish for marijuana. I wanted to publish the idea, but I was too much of a coward to publish on an illegal crop. Spanish makes some sense as the origin of reefer. After all, some of the other words describing marijuana are also from Spanish: such as “sin semilla” for seedless marijuana (female plants produced in isolation from male plants to produce lots of drug-rich resin), and “toke” for a hit, from toque.

I am only now getting up the nerve to write about reefer, and I am almost too late. By 2016 the American Heritage Dictionary has stopped repeating the old story about reefing up a ship’s sails, but it still says that the etymology of reefer is obscure. Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary written by readers (www.wiktionary.org), does say that reefer is from grifa, but stops there. The Real Academia corroborates; “grifa” does mean marijuana, but only in the Americas. And that’s where the books end.

The Honduran campesinos not only use “grifa” to mean marijuana. The term is rich in other meanings. As an adjective, “grifo” means ruffled, or fluffy, for example when weed seeds stick to your trouser legs after walking through a field of maize: one is said to “salir de la milpa con el pantalón grifo de mozote.” The verb engrifarse means to ruffle up one’s own feathers, the way birds fluff up their feathers to look big.

So “grifa” (the feminine form of “grifo”) is a perfect way to describe a bud of marijuana, which is fluffy, feathery or ruffled. The word “grifo” in turn comes from standard Spanish, and it is the name of the mythical gryphon, with the head of a lion and the body of a ruffled eagle.

The other thing they say about marijuana in Honduras is that it turns your head grifo or fuzzy, which is a good reason not to smoke it, at least not every day.

I wish Diebold was still around to hear this story. He spoke Spanish well and would have appreciated the real origin of reefer. Crops need names and it was always going to be more likely that the etymology of reefer came from the land and farmers rather than from the sea and sailors.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 Diccionario Campesino Hondureño. Ceiba 42(2).

PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) 2014 “Marijuana Timeline.” PBS Frontline.

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Fantastically educated farmers June 12th, 2016 by

I happened to be in Nigeria when I heard British Prime Minister David Cameron’s infamous quip about fantastically corrupt countries like Nigeria. Fortunately for Cameron, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari didn’t even bother to deny the notion. In an interview on CNN with Christiane Amanpour, Buhari said “I think he’s being honest about it,” and “He’s just saying what he knows.”

Nigerian newspapers that had only days before raged about corruption now rushed to condemn Cameron for suggesting it, and Buhari for admitting it. The press may have been happy to stoke a controversy that sold papers, but ordinary Nigerians also seemed upset, as if they were happier criticizing their own country than having Cameron do it for them.

group of womenWhile this happened I was spending every day discussing cassava with small groups of Nigerian farmers. Every day, I listened sympathetically as farmers told me that they got no help from their government. “We need fertilizer, loans and machinery,” they said, in village after village. The farmers said that they were all alone. It was a familiar story that I’ve heard all my working life, but the Nigerian farmers were much more insistent than most farmers in Latin America, or even elsewhere in Africa. In Nigeria, the highways are of uneven quality and the electricity is on so seldom that any good business is forced to buy a diesel power generator. So at first glance it is easy to agree with the Nigerian villagers, that they have been left to their own devices.

But as Paul has said in a recent story about drip irrigation, projects and governments, for that matter, are not always the best ones to guarantee the production and supply of agricultural inputs, like fertilizers and tractors. It is the job of government to provide roads, electricity and a fiscal environment that allows input dealers to operate fairly. The private sector is better equipped to manufacture and distribute the goods that farmers need.

In my travels I have rarely if ever heard smallholders anywhere describing the good things that their own government has done for them. That’s a bit odd. Governments do have their failings, but they also do good things. They regulate the seed sector, test new crop varieties, and stem the tide of adulterated fertilizers and pesticides, for example. These and other services generally go unnoticed in most countries.

I used to write about how farmers misunderstood insects, because bugs were difficult to observe. Some government services are also difficult to observe, so smallholders scarcely notice them. If a project or an agency gives you a bag of fertilizer, it leaves an impression. On the other hand, if the government animal health inspectors prevent a cattle disease from entering your country, you may not even be aware of this service.

Then several weeks into the farmer interviews, it dawned on me that, for all their grouching about neglect, many of the farmers were complaining in fluent English. Unlike most countries in Africa, in Nigeria I rarely need local language translation. The Nigerian farmers were so literate that sometimes they corrected our spelling of local crop varieties. Most of the villagers had finished primary school and many of the others had gone on to secondary school. A few had attended university.

Nigeria is divided into 36 states, and a federal territory, which sponsor most primary and secondary schools, with oversight from the Ministry of Education. By law schooling is free and compulsory, although in practice parents pay for books and uniforms. Some state school teachers are under-qualified and many of the schools are under-funded. Yet for all the schools’ troubles, at least in the southern states of Nigeria female literacy is over 80%.

Education influences agriculture in many ways, such as the ability to read written instructions on a product, to understand prevailing market prices, to add and subtract enough numbers to know if you are making money or not.

Few other African countries have educated their farmers as well as Nigeria has, even if no one is noticing.

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