Unique gift to Tulu 270 years ago by a Botany Great

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Unique gift to Tulu 270 years ago by a Botany Great

Textbook history, mostly constructed after the 18th century, tells us how some explorers set out from southern Europe starting around the mid-15th century and discovered new lands, leading to colonisation and ultimately causing a colossal political and social upheaval around the world. Any historical records from Europe available to us from before the 16th century were typically the writings from the religious figures, mostly the Roman Catholic clergy. These writings speak of the travels and observations of the many zealous clergymen who spread to various regions of the Old-World centuries before the time of Columbus.

In parallel with the colonial expansionism, the continental Europe witnessed an unprecedented interest in all streams of science, especially in regions under the control of the Protestant rulers. The general populace was illiterate as very few in the society were fortunate enough to have tutors. Those who became scholars were either members of the clergy or their immediate family. Latin, while continuing to be the sole literary lingua-franca of Europe, was also the only acceptable medium for official transactions in many lands. The effort to transform vernacular languages into their literary form was only just beginning.

There were indeed attempts by writers to translate texts from one language into another, Latin included. Such attempts, especially where Latin was involved, resulted in plenty of inaccuracies.

An example of such a linguistic anomaly could be seen with the surname of de Columbo. Pope John XXII wrote to the Nazarene Christians of Kollam (in today’s Kerala) on 5th April 1330: “Nobili viro domino Nascarinorum, et universis sub eo Christianis Nascarinis de Columbo…” (To the very esteemed lord of the Nasrānis and to all the Nasrāni Christians of Columbo/Kollam…). In the Genoese dialect (the so-called Italian language was created only in the late 19th century) Columbo was the word for Kollam. This place was shown prominently as a Christian province of the Indian subcontinent in the 1375 Catalan Mapamundi. It is interesting to note that the map mentions Manganor and shows that Christians are present there as well.

Ciudad de Columbo (City of Kollam) on the Catalan Mapamundi of 1375 AD image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

The members of Christopher Columbus’ extended family were known by the surname of de Columbo indicating that the family had migrated to Genoa from Kollam. The Vatican writers then realised that the word Columbo did not conform to proper Latin. So, they Latinised Columbo to Columbum, and, in the subsequent ecclesiastical correspondence, the ‘surname’ for a person from that place became Columbus. The army of historians since the discovery of the New World held on to the surname of Columbus, virtually incognizant of the existence of the non-clerical version of de Columbo (lit. of Kollam).

By the time the Swede Carl Linnaeus was born (1707), botany – the science of plants – had much advanced. His father, a Lutheran pastor, was also a botany enthusiast. Linnaeus was introduced to the study of plants before he turned five. Throughout his school years, he remained heavily focused on botany, much to the despair of his teachers, who wanted him to pay more attention to theology and Latin – the essential subjects of the church-led education system available only to the privileged few.

Latin was particularly important in Sweden, a relatively new political entity during Linnaeus’ time. It was only in 1745 that an investigative committee was formed to examine how to incorporate subjects of practical use – including modern languages such as Swedish, still in its infancy as a literary language – into the broadening education system.

Soon the scope of Linnaeus’ learning expanded to include animals, insects and other natural objects.

Modern science remembers him best for his complete revolution in taxonomy – the science of naming and classifying living organisms. He named and described about sixteen thousand different species. What is more, he sent his students – he called them his apostles – to all parts of the world, to identify and classify the living organisms unknown to Europe at that time. Several of these apostles did not survive the rigours of their travels. Johann Gerhard König was Linnaeus’ apostle to India.

Linnaeus’ research was made available to the other biologists of the time with little delay through his prolific writings and several revisions to his previous publications. His Species Plantarum is of interest here, first published in 1753 in two volumes, where over 6,000 plants were assigned two-word Latin (or Latinised) names.

Carl Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum, 1753

Why Latinisation?

A large number of the names given to the genus (the first of the two words) came from the native languages. For example, murunga was the word used in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the drumstick tree. To conform to the Latin text of the books, and also to aid pronunciation, Linnaeus Latinised the original native word. He noted this specific species as Moringha zeylanica, or Ceylonese moringa.

This brings us to the genus Basella with its two species – rubra (red) and alba (white).

Linnaeus (1753) describes Basella rubra as a plant growing in India and having flat leaves. For the information on this plant, he gives credit to George Clifford, a wealthy Amsterdam banker and a governor of the Dutch East India Company who was also a keen botanist with a large private herbarium. It is quite likely that Clifford had this plant growing in his herbarium.

Linnaeus then describes Basella alba as having wavy leaves, white flowers and green stems. But he was not sure where it was located.

It may be noted here that König, Linnaeus’ apostle to India, was not yet a pupil of the latter in 1753.

The Latinised word Basella would have originated from Tulu.

How do we know the word was from Tulu?

The creeper is known as basale (IPA: ˈbʌsʌle) in this language (as well as in Kannada). No other language has a similar three-syllabic word for the vegetable using the same sequence of consonants and closely matching vowels. People of Karnataka outside of Tulunad hardly grew these greens they call Mangalore Spinach. The common English word for the vegetable is Malabar spinach. As the reader may be aware, until the advent of the 20th century, Malabar, an Aramaic/Arabic word, equated to Tulunad geographically. Tulunad in the south extended all the way to the southern border of Kasargod. Mangalore was the most prominent of the cities of Malabar, and almost every house around Mangalore had a creeper or two in their backyard of this great vegetable.

Today Malabar spinach can be found being grown all over the world.

  • References

Augustus, I. Christopher Columbus: Buried deep in Latin the Indian origin of the great explorer from Genoa. Amazon e-book.

Salin, S. Läroverkens utveckling i Sverige. www.lararnashistoria.se/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/L%C3%A4roverkens%20utveckling%20i%20Sverige_0.pdf

Storia della lingua Italiana. www.europassitalian.com/it/risorse-gratuite/storia-lingua-italiana/

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