folk taxonomy

Sun Nov 10 07:10:54 CST 1996

Concerning the view that folk taxonomies around the world are
similar because they reflect real differences in nature,
this is partially true and partially not. Most folk taxonomies
overclassify useful organisms and underclassify useless ones.
This is reflected in scientific nomenclature, especially at
the generic level. The Apiaceae contains numerous monospecific
genera because many of the plants are useful culinary and
medicinal herbs, and have been since ancient times. Linnaeus
called them genera simply because Latin words already existed
for them. Huge genera like Carex and Selaginella may be just
as diverse as some entire families, but were lumped
together in large genera because the Romans did not distinguish
between them.
   The same is true at the species level. Ethnotaxonomists
recognize that peoples from each culture categorize nature
according to the specific needs and perceptions. The Romans
and other Europeans recognized the unity of the oak genus,
distinguishing them as white oak, red oak, black oak, etc.
All Linnaeus did was to Latinize this to Quercus alba, Quercus
rubra, Quercus nigra, etc., and try to universalize the
system. It was only later, after Linnaeus's system had caught
on, that anyone tried to bring evolution into the equation, or
to try to standardize the species concept.
   Changing subjects, with respect to commemorative names
being easier than "cutesy" descriptive names: they may be
easier to coin, but are more difficult to use. Many plants
in the SW US and NW Mexico bear the epithet "wislizeni"
which I have to look up every time I have to spell it.

Joseph E. Laferriere
Tucson, Arizona, USA
JosephL at

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