Using Ethnotaxonomy to Assess Traditional Knowledge and Language Vitality: A Case Study with the Vaie People of Sarawak, Malaysia

  • Syafitri Hidayati Faculty of Engineering and Science, Curtin Universiti Sarawak
  • Bibi Aminah Abdul Ghani Faculty of Language and Communication, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Kuching
  • Beena Giridharan Office of the Pro Vice Chancellor, Curtin University Sarawak Malaysia, Miri
  • Mohd Zafri Hassan Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia Bintulu Campus, Bintulu
  • F. Merlin Franco Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Keywords: Folk names, Vernacular names, Language vitality and endangerment, Linguistic ethnobiology


This article demonstrates the potential of using ethnotaxonomy and nomenclature to assess the vitality status of indigenous languages and traditional knowledge at the ecosystem level. We collaborated with the Vaie people of Sarawak, Malaysia, applying a mixed methodology approach that relies on free-listing to a large extent. We applied the Traditional Knowledge and Language Vitality (TraLaVi) index to assess traditional knowledge and language vitality against five major parameters, specifically: language priority, retrieval of information, knowledge erosion, lexical recognition, and social support for exchange of traditional knowledge.  The results show that with a TraLaVi score of 0.84, the Vaie language can be considered “safe”. Individuals practicing the traditional occupation of fishing fared better (mean=0.90) than those of the non-fishermen group (mean=0.77). However, when the language vitality was assessed using the Language Vitality and Endangerment assessment tool of UNESCO, the results indicate that the Vaie language could potentially be in the “unsafe” zone, highlighting the differences between the ecosystem based approach of the TraLaVi and the macro-approach of UNESCO. However, these approaches can be applied in a complementary manner to generate a more accurate portrayal of the language vitality scenario.

Author Biographies

Syafitri Hidayati, Faculty of Engineering and Science, Curtin Universiti Sarawak
Syafitri Hidayati is an emerging ethnobiologist extremely passionate about linguistic ethnobiology.
Bibi Aminah Abdul Ghani, Faculty of Language and Communication, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Kuching
Bibi Aminah has expertise in the fields of Sociolinguistics, Historical Linguistics, and Phonology. She works with the indigenous people of Borneo, documenting their languages and cultures.
Beena Giridharan, Office of the Pro Vice Chancellor, Curtin University Sarawak Malaysia, Miri
Beena Giridharan has expertise in the fields of Applied Linguistics and Education.
Mohd Zafri Hassan, Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia Bintulu Campus, Bintulu

Mohd ZafriHassan is an expert in the areas of Ichthyology and Fish Biology.

F. Merlin Franco, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam
F. Merlin Franco is an ethnobiologist working in the areas of linguistic ethnobiology and indigenous calendric systems.


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How to Cite
Hidayati, S., Abdul Ghani, B. A., Giridharan, B., Hassan, M. Z., & Franco, F. M. (2018). Using Ethnotaxonomy to Assess Traditional Knowledge and Language Vitality: A Case Study with the Vaie People of Sarawak, Malaysia. Ethnobiology Letters, 9(2), 33-47.
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