Medical Humanities


Healing Plants and Their Cultural Meaning: An Intangible Heritage between Linguistics and History of Medicine

Francesco Perono Cacciafoco​


This paper provides a comparative etymological reconstruction of the names of 22 medicinal plants among Indo-European, Papuan, Austronesian, and Semitic languages, focusing both on their popular denominations in different languages and cultural contexts and on their scientific designations (binomial nomenclature). Starting from the linguistic analysis of the origins and original meanings of these medicinal plant names, the paper highlights analogies and differences in the naming processes of phytonyms in unrelated linguistic and cultural contexts (Indo-European, Papuan, Austronesian, and Semitic), looking for common patterns in the related onomatopoesis. Besides linguistic and historical perspectives, the paper investigates the use made, over time, of medicinal plants by different people, in different chronological and geographical contexts, both at the level of disease treatments and at the level of nutritional supports (in the daily diet and in diet-therapy). Starting from the analysis of ancient written records and ancestral oral traditions, the paper documents stories and legends connected with specific medicinal plants, unearthing an almost lost intangible heritage reconstructed on the basis of historical sources, when available (especially in Indo-European and Semitic contexts), and of fieldwork reports and recordings of still unpublished aboriginal oral traditions and myths (especially in Austronesian and Papuan contexts). The paper aims at highlighting possible common patterns in the naming processes of medicinal plants in different and unrelated linguistic contexts and at safeguarding a traditional heritage of myths and legends linked to medicinal phytonyms that still needs to be explored in depth and that, in the case of aboriginal contexts, urgently needs to be preserved and documented. This interdisciplinary work associates Historical Linguistics and Anthropological Linguistics with History of Medicine, Language Documentation, and History of Culture. 

We are intensively cooperating with the University of Hawaii at Manoa (A.L. Blake) and with the Palacky University at Olomuc, Czech Republic (Frantisek Kratochvil), sharing data, double-checking them, including fieldwork reports, expanding considerably the database, and aiming at including new Papuan languages of the Alor-Pantar language family and archipelago, like Sawila. 


Lim, Tyan Gin Shaun, and Perono Cacciafoco, Francesco. [December 2020]. Plants and Place Names: A Case Study of Abui Toponymy. Review of Historical Geography and Toponomastics, 15, 29-30.

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