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Folk Classification of Coconut

Folk classification is the vernacular way people classify, name, and categorize their environment to systematize the world surrounding them. It is an arbitrary naming system where people classify their surroundings in accordance with their own value and is therefore distinct from scientific classification. Folk classification shows us how people living in a traditional society perceive and categorize their surroundings. Japanese shusseuo, the fish that have distinct names that change as they grow larger, is a good example. Yellowtail fish is one of those types of fish that has five distinct names according to its stages of growth.

However, when it comes to fruits or fruit trees, looking around the world’s languages, it is not very common to have distinct names for divergent stages of growth. It is because fruits usually draw people’s attention only after they are ripe. Notwithstanding, in Tuvaluan, there are six distinct names of the coconut fruit, depending on its stages of growth: kaleuto, mukomuko, pī, motomoto, fuāniu, and utanu.

Tuvalu has no mountains nor rivers, thus no fresh water, so people depend on rainwater for their daily life water. This extreme environmental feature of the lands disturbs the plants’ growth as few as 356 vascular plants reported present, of which only 18% are possibly indigenous (Thaman. ed. 2012). However, the islands are quite abundant in coconut trees (niu), which is one of halophilous plants that are tolerant of salt water. The Tuvaluan people utilize niu from its roots to its fruits (at various stages of growth) for all the aspects of their daily lives. The six distinct names of the fruit mentioned above reflect their way of life and the environment as Edward Sapir writes: “It is the vocabulary of a language that most clearly reflects the physical and social environment of its speakers” (Sapir 1912: 228).

A Dictionary of the Tuvaluan Language & Culture