This article points out, in passing, some surprising regularities in how people from different cultures name things.
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.
There appears to be such profound unconscious agreement that people will even concur on which exact words make the best names for particular organisms. Brent Berlin, an ethnobiologist at the University of Georgia, discovered this when he read 50 pairs of names, each consisting of one bird and one fish name, to a group of 100 undergraduates, and asked them to identify which was which. The names had been randomly chosen from the language of Peru’s Huambisa people, to which the students had had no previous exposure. With such a large sample size — there were 5,000 choices being made — the students should have scored 50 percent or very close to it if they were blindly guessing. Instead, they identified the bird and fish names correctly 58 percent of the time, significantly more often than expected for random guessing. Somehow they were often able to intuit the names’ birdiness or fishiness.
Doctors found that upon recovering from swelling of the brain caused by herpes, J.B.R. could no longer recognize living things.
He could still recognize nonliving objects, like a flashlight, a compass, a kettle or a canoe. But the young man was unable to recognize a kangaroo, a mushroom or a buttercup. He could not say what a parrot or even the unmistakable ostrich was. And J.B.R. is far from alone; doctors around the world have found patients with the same difficulty. Most recently, scientists studying these patients’ brains have reported repeatedly finding damage — a deadening of activity or actual lesions — in a region of the temporal lobe, leading some researchers to hypothesize that there might be a specific part of the brain that is devoted to the doing of taxonomy. As curious as they are, these patients and their woes would be of little relevance to our own lives, if they had merely lost some dispensable librarianlike ability to classify living things. As it turns out, their situation is much worse. These are people completely at sea. Without the power to order and name life, a person simply does not know how to live in the world, how to understand it. How to tell the carrot from the cat — which to grate and which to pet?