Gabriela Pérez Báez
Curator of Linguistics, National Museum of Natural History
Gabriela Pérez Báez is a linguist who is especially interested in endangered languages and language documentation. She also studies the factors that put a language at risk in order to develop better approaches for sustaining a particular language.
There has always been language change and language death, but in our current era this is happening at a very rapid pace. “There has been a tendency over the last 150 or 200 years towards monolingualism as a correlate of nation building,” says Pérez Báez, “and that has eradicated significant portions of our linguistic diversity.” Human rights, or lack thereof, also play a role in linguistic diversity. “Some languages go unspoken because of social repression, of one group telling another that they cannot speak their language.” Other cultures have dramatic breakdowns in the transmission of language—and the knowledge it contains—causing the number of speakers to decline until none remain.
Dr. Pérez Báez is a member of the Recovering Voices initiative, which is supported by the Consortia and other sources of funding. It is a multi-disciplinary response to the issue of language endangerment. More specifically, attending to the knowledge that is embedded in language and is threatened when a language goes unspoken. “In Recovering Voices, we seek to bring communities, collections, and research together in support of linguistic diversity,” says Pérez Báez.
An important goal of the Recovering Voices initiative is to capitalize on the linguistic and ethnographic resources and collections of the Smithsonian. The National Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology department is the steward of the National Anthropological Archives, a vast collection of language documentation that originated in the work of the Bureau of American Ethnology researchers. They were tasked with documenting the cultures, and therefore languages, of the various indigenous groups in what had become the United States.
“We hold documentation from most languages in the United States, whether they continue to be spoken nowadays or not,” says Pérez Báez. That documentation can consist of ethnographic notes, grammatical descriptions, lexicon, photographs and ethnographic artifacts, and narratives that community members interested in language and culture reclamation can use to rediscover something as basic as counting systems or the names of plants and animals.
Using botany to revitalize language
In her Consortia-supported project, Pérez Báez is using botany as one way to revitalize language. Documentation and Revitalization of the Language and Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Isthmus Zapotec Community is a joint project by the Botany and Anthropology departments of NMNH, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in partnership with the Zapotec community in La Ventosa, Oaxaca, and various institutions in México.
“I have been working on a dictionary of Isthmus Zapotec, which is a language spoken in the south of México in the state of Oaxaca,” says Pérez Báez. “This dictionary has about 1,000 lexical items related to plant terminology, and that includes several hundred plant names. These plant names were documented in Zapotec, but we only had very sparse descriptions of the plants.”
“And so, over the course of the years, I began learning about ethnobotanical collection,” says Pérez Báez. She started a project in September 2013 to collect ethnobotanical samples in a methodologically rigorous manner and have those samples identified by experts. Right now the team involves two botanists, a photographer, five local experts in the community, and two linguists in addition to Pérez Báez herself. It will be a one-year process of collecting, with an additional 12 months to complete the identification of the plants, carry out community consultations, and produce materials for the retention of research in the community.
The project team intends to capitalize on that research to do a number of things. “We want to develop a revitalization program in collaboration with a community using plant-related knowledge as a means to get to the language. The grant will allow for colleagues in Botany, NMAI, and Folklife to go to the community of La Ventosa and develop a sustainable program for language revitalization.”
The team is planning to use their research to produce an ethnobotanical herbarium online. There are thousands of botanical samples in the National Herbarium, and the ethnobotanical documentation that might be in those samples is not accessible. “Creating an ethnobotanical herbarium online is a massive endeavor,” says Pérez Báez, “but we thought we could start with a pilot using the research and position the Museum for a grant award for a full-blown project. In the revitalization work, we saw that we might be able to engage students from the region of La Ventosa in this particular project. So, we’re trying to bring together language, knowledge about the environment, research, and capacity building both in the community and here in the Museum.”
Dr. Pérez Báez grew up in México City and received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Buffalo, SUNY.