Chauvet, Taxonomic-linguistic study of plantain in Africa

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Chauvet, Michel, 2001. Book review of : Taxonomic-linguistic study of plantain in Africa. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 48 : 315-316.


Rossel, Gerda, 1998. Taxonomic-linguistic study of plantain in Africa. Leiden, Research School CNWS. 227 + 86 p.

This book is the result of a thesis. The author trained as an agronomist and as a linguist, with complementsin plant taxonomy and agriculture history. This back-ground explains why she undertook the huge task of inventorying the diversity of cultivars as well as of their uses and their names, with the objective of building up the history of the crop in Africa. In order to show the difficulty of the task, we shall only mention one aspect. Many crops have names which have been borrowed from one language to another and allow us to trace their diffusion through entire continents. It is not the case with bananas, where names can apply to particular cultivars, or to one or another group of cultivars. In addition, in Africa, we deal with a multiplicity of languages, often poorly known, and linguistic processes played a role only at a local or regional level, resulting in a great many names. Even the origin of the commonest names in European languages, banana and plantain, is obscure. We onlyknow that they were both created in Portuguese during the first years of their intercontinental travels.

The amount of data made available by the author is impressive. She combined extensive field work and digging into a lot of dictionaries of African languages, agriculture periodicals of the colonial period and all the historical sources she could trace. This basic work will be a reference for further researchers, and the author must be thanked for her contribution.

As a reviewer, I must now express some frustration. Being myself interested in crop history, I hoped that the book would allow me to draw my own conclusions about the history of plantains in Africa. This proved difficult even when reading again and again through the book. One reason for that difficulty is the form of the publication. As is usual with a thesis, few efforts have been made in typography and page-making. There is no hierarchy in titles and the many tables are not enough distinguished from the text. The few black and white maps are reproduced directly from the computer and apparently elaborated with a rather primitive software. Some of them show only the linguistic boundaries, and others only the political ones. No map shows the ecological areas and the streams of Africa, although the author stresses the importance of ecology in the diffusion of plantains. Four appendices follow their own pagination, and last but not least, the book offers no index.

Moreover, many salient features of the history of plantain are scattered through the book, and not taken on board in the summaryof the ‘synthesis’ chapter. As an example, we find on p. 209 that “the general belief that Musa was already grown in West Africa when the first Europeans arrived, was refuted in Chapter 4.3.1”. This is perhaps the most important conclusion of the book, but I must confess that I was unable to find such refutation in that chapter. The author may well be right, but, as she recognizes, the data are complex. So, a particular effort should be done in organizing the data in such a way that the reader may have an overall impression without being stopped by the technicalities of each discipline. As most data havea geographical dimension, they could be easily synthesized in colour maps, with arrows indicating the steps in the diffusion of plantain cultivars and names. Many historical atlases are here to testify that good maps not only allow the reader to understand complex situations, but give new ideas for future research. In the field of linguistics, perhaps the best example of howmaps and figures may contribute is the marvellous small book entitled DTV-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache, which sketches the history of the German language, including the diffusion of several crop names.

In conclusion, the author must be thanked for making available an enormous amount of data, which can be considered as reliable because the author could check them both from a biological point of view and from a linguistic and historical point of view. Unfortunately, the book is difficult to use, and the author


should be encouraged to look for a good publisher and produce a new and more synthetic book, making full use of modern techniques in mapping and page-making and, why not, including photographs of cultivars and other relevant information. Bananas and plantains deserve such an initiative.

Michel Chauvet, Montpellier