Australia’s banana famine – which has pushed prices to over $17 per kg in some parts – is the consequence of a year’s harvest lost to extreme weather. While we live out our bleak bananaless days, we can take little comfort from the fact that environmental pressures will continue to threaten banana crops, and not just from weather catastrophes. The overwhelming popularity of the yellow Cavendish bananas sold in supermarkets means that our commercial crops lack genetic diversity. As soon as a disease or agricultural pest learns how to thrive on the fruit, there’s every chance that they will rip through harvests with all the destructive energy of a Queensland cyclone.
But what we can take some comfort from is a recent study into how wild bananas were first domesticated and made edible. An unlikely coalition of agricultural scientists, geneticists, archeologists and linguists has been trying to figure just how different banana varieties emerged through processes of human selection and dispersal over the past 6000 years or so. One important application of this knowledge will be the future cultivation of banana strains that are better adapted to their changed environmental circumstances.
How do linguists figure in this? History has shown that when people are introduced to a new product (such as a delicious yellow fruit) they are likely to use the name supplied by the group that introduced it to them, rather than cook up with an entirely new term. So when the Italians graciously supplied English-speakers with unleavened dough sticks we were all quite content to call this culinary novelty ‘spaghetti’. But language change is an unstoppable force. As time goes by and people move from place to place, names for things begin to spread and diversify. What historical linguists can do is work backwards to reach an original term by comparing all the variations and subtracting the difference. Of course it’s far, far more complicated than that, but in theory it’s possible to use various comparative methods to sketch past activities of language groups. Prehistoric migrations, trading routes, conflicts, plagues, intermarriages, technological innovations and social systems have all been inferred through linguistic evidence and corroborated with the help of archeologists and geneticists.
Linguist Mark Donohue has collected over 1100 terms related to banana varieties throughout southeast Asia and applied comparative techniques to find clusters of similarities. He was able to isolate four key linguistic derivations, each pointing to a different dispersal trajectory. Together with archeological findings and genetic data, this information was used to trace the spread and diversification of banana crops in our region. And in case you’re wondering, the word ‘banana’ itself doesn’t enter into the equation. It comes via Portuguese or Spanish from the Mande language family of west Africa – a testament to just how far bananas travelled from their likely origins in New Guinea.
As they spread through Southeast Asia, the ancestors of our supermarket bananas hybridised into subspecies that could not have formed without human intervention. It’s probable that a few of those hybrids paired with other subspecies to create sterile varieties ideal for farming. Pieced together, this ancestral knowledge about how wild bananas were crossbred for domestication may well provide modern farmers with the know how to produce more resilient crops.
So when bananas finally make it back onto our shelves, consider for a delicious moment how linguistics is contributing to their future survival.