Vernacular concepts

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Tue Mar 1 12:10:36 CST 2005

James Ytow wrote:

> Vernacular names are doubtlessly essential for non-western language
> countrises even in scientific context as Adolf and Hidenobu pointed out.
> To recruit children and youth to taxonomy, we need to use names
> in native language (almost) compatible with latinised names.

I absolutely agree, which is why there are rare exceptions when I will
"invent" a new vernacular name to go along with a scientific name that does
not already have a vernacular name associated with it.  The reasons that the
exceptions are "rare" is because the number of organisms with the combined
characteristics of lacking an existing vernacular name, and being of
partcicular interest among non-scientists for whom latin names can be
intimidating, are very few in number (generally they are limited to new
species discoveries that, for some reason or another, have broad popular
appeal).  That latin names can be intimidating to a significant sector of
human society may be unfortunate, and may even be "correctable" (e.g., kids
seem to be able to deal with latin names for dinosaurs without
difficulty) -- but is nevertheless undeniable reality of the present, and of
the historical past.

But I also want to comment on an earlier post to this thread.  Paul van
Rijckevorsel provided an excellent example of the "imperfect" correlation
between scientific names and vernacular names, and wrote:

> A database that lists these as:
> 1) cedar - Cedrus atlantica
> 2) cedar - Thuja plicata
> 3) cedar - Cedrela odorata
> 4) cedar - Juniperus viriginiana
> will have converted four "reliable vernacular names" (each in its own
> specific context) into a big mess.

A simple database design will create a big mess, but a good/robust database
design will record names in their usage context, thus effectively being

1) cedar SEC. gardening center, 2005 = Cedrus atlantica SEC. van
Rijckevorsel, 2005
2) real cedar SEC. gardening center, 2005 = Cedrus libani SEC. van
Rijckevorsel, 2005
3) cedar SEC. architect, 2005 = Thuja plicata SEC. van Rijckevorsel, 2005
4) cedar SEC. cigar specialist, 2005 = Cedrela odorata SEC. van
Rijckevorsel, 2005
5) cedar SEC. hanger merchant, 2005 = Juniperus viriginiana SEC. van
Rijckevorsel, 2005

[The "2005" is just a placeholder for the span of time in which these
various contexts made these various associations between a vernacular name
and a concept represented more tightly by a particular scietific name.]

Current efforts to document this information are more restricted, in the
sense that they mostly focus only on Linnean-type names, and only on
publications (and additionally, in some cases, some form of unpublished
documentation).  I think what David Remsen is after, and I think what we
will eventually need to really make biodiversity information accessible, is
to accomodate names outside the Linnaean context (i.e., vernacular names),
and also accomodate "contexts" that extend beyond publications and certain
forms of unpublished documentation (e.g., "gardening center", "architect",
"cigar specialist" & "hanger merchant").

> The above example, although good in that it shows off one
> name in a single language, in a single locality, at one point of
> time, that will have different well-established meanings depending on who
> is spoken to, is too limited. It leaves out the time element. The same
name in the
> same language, in the same locality, in the same context, can
> have different meanings depending on at what point in time it is spoken. A
> decades can make quite a difference.

A point I tried to make in a quip to Jim Croft in an earlier post is that
all of these problems you describe are not the exclusive domain of
vernacular names.  Every single one of them is also readily evident within
the strict scope of Linnean-type names, and the stricter scope of
scientific/taxonomic publications. Just as there is a many-to-many
relationship between vernacular names and scientific names, so too is there
a many-to-many relationship between scientific names and "organisms" (sensu
Leech; =taxon concept).


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at

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