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Monday, August 10, 2009

Meta-Classifying: Recognizing the Ordered Existence of Folk Taxonomy

Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World -
Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes:

Anthropologists were the first to recognize that taxonomy might be more than the science officially founded by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, in the 1700s. Studying how nonscientists order and name life, creating what are called folk taxonomies, anthropologists began to realize that when people across the globe were creating ordered groups and giving names to what lived around them, they followed highly stereotyped patterns, appearing unconsciously to follow a set of unwritten rules. Not that conformity to rules was at first obvious to anthropologists who were instead understandably dazzled by the variety in folk taxonomies. The Ilongots, for example, a people of the Philippines, name gorgeous wild orchids after human body parts. There bloom the thighs, there fingernails, yonder elbows and thumbs. The Rofaifo people of New Guinea, excellent natural historians, classify the cassowary, a giant bird complete with requisite feathers and beak, as a mammal. In fact, there seemed, at first glance, to be little room even for agreement among people, let alone a set of universally followed rules. More recently, however, deep underlying similarities have begun to become apparent.

Cecil Brown, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University who has studied folk taxonomies in 188 languages, has found that people recognize the same basic categories repeatedly, including fish, birds, snakes, mammals, “wugs” (meaning worms and insects, or what we might call creepy-crawlies), trees, vines, herbs and bushes.

Dr. Brown’s finding would be considerably less interesting if these categories were clear-cut depictions of reality that must inevitably be recognized. But tree and bush are hardly that, since there is no way to define a tree versus a bush. The two categories grade insensibly into one another. Wugs, likewise, are neither an evolutionarily nor ecologically nor otherwise cohesive group. Still, people repeatedly recognize and name these oddities.

Likewise, people consistently use two-word epithets to designate specific organisms within a larger group of organisms, despite there being an infinitude of potentially more logical methods. It is so familiar that it is hard to notice. In English, among the oaks, we distinguish the pin oak, among bears, grizzly bears. When Mayan Indians, familiar with the wild piglike creature known as peccaries, encountered Spaniards’ pigs, they dubbed them “village peccaries.” We use two-part names for ourselves as well: Sally Smith or Li Wen. Even scientists are bound by this practice, insisting on Latin binomials for species.

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