Standardizing 'English' names vs. 'Scientific' names (1 Viewer)

jc122463

Well-known member
Ok, I know this is probably something that has been discussed here in length (I've read a couple threads), but I feel it's worth rehashing.
My question comes down to whether the 'english' or 'scientific' name should be the authority on identifying a species.
'Scientific' names are meant to be the common denominator as far as classification. 'English' names not only change regionally, but are often meaningless in the vast majority of the world that does not speak english.
The problem that arrises is that we are in a time period where scientific knowledge is in a constant state of expansion. The relationships of birds (genus, species, and sub-species (not to mention family)) seems to be in a constant state of flux.
Is the 'english' name or the 'scientific' name the most consistent?
It seems to me that it would be easier to agree on 'english' names that can then remain constant, while there precise taxonomy is determined, than to accept a 'scientific' name, that will undoubtably be changed, as the constant by which to identify a species.
Please let me know what you think.

Cheers,
Benji

PS - I'll be off birding in Namibia for a while so may not be able to respond myself, but this is something that I've been having heated debates over with fellow birders for a while now and would love to hear what others think. Thanks for your input.
 

jocateme

Well-known member
I personally am used to referring to birds using their scientific names, especially because there are countless names for almost every single bird in such a huge country as mine. The others, on the other hand, practically don't have a usable name. Take, for example, "guaracava-de-crista-alaranjada" (literally Orangish-crested Elaenia, which doesn't sound too strange in English). This is the official Brazilian name for Greenish Elaenia, Myiopagis viridicata, but, as you can see, is far too long for someone to use in a conversation. The obvious abreviation would be "guaracava" (or simply Elaenia). But, as Brazil has 16 species of "guaracavas" (genera Elaenia and Myiopagis), you can imagine the confusion this could cause. Anyway, Brazilian names aren't the subject here, so let's move on to what is of interest (or not).

I don't think there is (nor should be) a strict rule for what kind of names has to be used here in BF, although I feel people use mostly the english name in the forum. I always try to put both English and scientific names when I refer to any bird here, just not to cause any confusion, but if someone does it only with one of the names, and I don't know it, I don't think is so bothering to make a rapid research and discover what bird it is.

You showed well the pros and cons of both sides, especially the cons actually.
  • SN: changeable according to the time
  • EN: variable according to the region
Although the adjectives above look quite like synonyms, I think you got the difference. Well... the solution, in my opinion. isn't different after all. Just doing that simple research I meant. Otherwise, I think the English name problem is a bit "bigger" than the scientific name one. Although scientific names change a lot, they are mostly changes in the genus OR species level (I remeber reading this here somewhere, and found it reasonable), which makes the problem easier to be solved.

Well, that's my opinion about... don't think it was clarifying, but that's what I think.

Cheers!
 
Last edited:

ColinD

I'm younger than that now
.......You showed well the pros and cons of both sides, especially the cons actually.
  • SN: changeable according to the time
  • EN: variable according to the region
Although the adjectives above look quite like synonyms, I think you got the difference. Well... the solution, in my opinion. isn't different after all. Just doing that simple research I meant. Otherwise, I think the English name problem is a bit "bigger" than the scientific name one. Although scientific names change a lot, they are mostly changes in the genus OR species level (I remeber reading this here somewhere, and found it reasonable), which makes the problem easier to be solved.

Although you are correct that English names are less reliable than scientific names, it's also true that people expect them to be less reliable. Scientific names are expected to be accurate, which makes the fact that they keep changing a worse problem in my opinion.
 

l_raty

laurent raty
You showed well the pros and cons of both sides, especially the cons actually.
  • SN: changeable according to the time
  • EN: variable according to the region
Although the adjectives above look quite like synonyms, I think you got the difference.

I'm not sure the difference is that straightforward...
Scientific names at a given time can vary from one authority to another; official regional lists being often maintained by official regional taxonomic committees (= different authorities), in practice, these names can vary according to the region as well. E.g., the snow goose is typically placed in the genus Chen in the New World but in Anser in the Old World, and it's been so for decades.
English names, on the other hand, are not infrequently changed when higher-level taxonomic changes occur, while this type of change can have no effect at all on the scientific name. E.g., Pseudopodoces humilis was changed from Hume's ground-jay to Hume's ground-tit or Hume's groundpecker when it was discovered that it was a parid, not a corvid.

I would not necessarily expect one of the two names to be systematically more consistent than the other - it will just vary from case to case. And, anyway, when a taxonomic change affects the number of species in need of identifiants (split or lump), no full consistency is expectable at all...

Best,
Laurent -
 

KnockerNorton

Well-known member
You're barking up the wrong tree, mate.

English names are cultural, and based on nothing other than common acceptance. If you go to a new place, even within the UK, you have no idea what the English name is. Is it Great Tit? Greater Titmouse? Blackcap? They vary over space AND time, pretty much at random.

The whole point about scientific names is that they are agreed accoding to logical set criteria. Yes, they will change over time, but if you keep up with the 'rules' or check with the relevant authority, in time or space, you find the correct name. There is no such authority or criteria for English names, and if there was, you'd be in exactly the same situation as with scientific names now. So what's the point?
 

l_raty

laurent raty
You're barking up the wrong tree, mate.

English names are cultural, and based on nothing other than common acceptance. If you go to a new place, even within the UK, you have no idea what the English name is. Is it Great Tit? Greater Titmouse? Blackcap? They vary over space AND time, pretty much at random.

Yes, you can look at it that way. But then many people are "barking up the wrong tree", and have been doing so for years - so many that we actually now have a reasonnably standardised system of English names, published in world check-lists, that can in practice be used for international communication among birders/ornithologists almost (?) as efficiently as scientific names. And that is used for this purpose by many people (a majority of whom are not even native English speakers, by the way).
Whether it's a good thing or not, whether there was a real need for this or not, is certainly open to discussion. But this won't change the facts.

Cheers, L-
 

KnockerNorton

Well-known member
So how will adopting English names over Scientific names change anything? You haven't addressed that point. You'd just be substituting one string of letter for another - they would then be subject to exactly the same change pressures as scientific names as species are split/lumped and new relationships identified. Take the tits again. Do you adopt Siberian Tit or Gray-headed Chickadee, or call it something new like Siberian Chickadee, seeing as it now not considered to be in the same family as the true tits like Great Tit? Do you call Blue Tit something else because it isn't as related to Great Tit as we once thought? Do you adopt Skua or jaeger? And is it Pomarine or Pomantorine (or whatever it was last century)? And it is gray or grey? Diver or Loon? Swamphen or Swamp-hen or Gallinule or Rail? No matter what names you use, in whatever language, they will still change as the same reasons for change will apply to whatever names you choose to use. So, at the very least, we should maybe use a naming system that is international by not being national for anyone. Assuming that everyone speaks English or should is a bit arrogant and also potentially political.
 

citrinella

Well-known member
You're barking up the wrong tree, mate.

English names are cultural, and based on nothing other than common acceptance. If you go to a new place, even within the UK, you have no idea what the English name is. Is it Great Tit? Greater Titmouse? Blackcap? They vary over space AND time, pretty much at random.
Precisely, agreed. Similarly for local names the world over. It is part of the culture, a valuable part. Standardizing them is destroying the culture. Yes, a Solan goose isn't a goose, so what ? A barnacle goose doesn't turn into a barnacle but that is still what it is called. Never mind a wheatear whose name was changed for cultural reasons and hasn't reverted to the much more appropriate white-arse.

These names were not derived for scientific purposes, why should they have to meet scientific standards when there is a universal scientific nomenclature ? Indeed, the incongruity of certain names makes the bird all the more memorable (and enjoyable).

The whole point about scientific names is that they are agreed accoding to logical set criteria. Yes, they will change over time, but if you keep up with the 'rules' or check with the relevant authority, in time or space, you find the correct name. There is no such authority or criteria for English names, and if there was, you'd be in exactly the same situation as with scientific names now. So what's the point?
There is an organization which attempts to standardize English names - the British Ornithilogists Union. Frankly, given that we have a scientific nomenclature, I think this organization is unworthy of financial support, do not thin tax-payers money should support it.

As a corollary, I work in computer programming (health service support). One of my bug bears is the number of systems that support more than one unique identification system. Why ? It just cost more effort and confusion. It would be better to concentrate the effort on getting one system working properly.

As for differences over scientific names, and changes, sure there are a few. But far fewer than in local language. How many names does a (more or less) universal species have ?

Stop tramping on cultural diversity - or ask the bird what it wants to be called ;-)

Mike.
 

KnockerNorton

Well-known member
Mike, the BOU does a lot mor ethan that! I agree on the cultural side, which is what makes standarization of English names not only culturally damaging but also much more dofficult - look what happened when they tried to change Common Gull to Mew Gull etc. And how many people still use hedge Sparrow as well as Dunnock, but aren't even sure how to pronounce Hedge Accentor? People have less cultural investment in scientific names, so they're LESS bothered if they change compared to English names.
 

Frenchy

Well-known member
United Kingdom
It seems to me that when scientific names are changed, there is generally a good reason for it. For instance, the species has been discovered to be completely unrelated to its one time cousins, or a previously overlooked name takes priority in a chronological naming system, or (slightly less worthy in my heathen opinion) there is a change in the gender of the birds name (don't understand latin or greek or esparanto, so therefore a bit non-plussed by these changes).

People can generally understand the need for these changes, and most books that come out after the change will follow accordingly. However, changing English names is always based on the opinions of those doing the changes, and as a part of our collective culture, people almost feel a bit violated by someone else having the audacity to change the name of their bird. It doesn't matter that birds English names have been changing for centuries and will always continue to do so. I think what people object to is the sudden changing from the old and faithful to that which we are told is the new name. In time, i'm sure that most English speakers will call birds by a standardised English name, but its going to have to wait for a while yet...
 

Farnboro John

Well-known member
Mike, the BOU does a lot mor ethan that! I agree on the cultural side, which is what makes standarization of English names not only culturally damaging but also much more dofficult - look what happened when they tried to change Common Gull to Mew Gull etc. And how many people still use hedge Sparrow as well as Dunnock, but aren't even sure how to pronounce Hedge Accentor? People have less cultural investment in scientific names, so they're LESS bothered if they change compared to English names.

When did you last see a Bearded Reedling, as well?

I like the cultural diversity point, it has the attractive benefit of being in accordance with government policy so should be sufficient to bring BOU to heel without further attempts to inflict standardisation where it is inappropriate. Must go, can hear a Yaffle outside.

John
 

Alan Manson

KwaZulu-Natal birder
Opus Editor
I like this way of looking at things - posted by Neels Jackson on a similar thread on SABirdNet:

But I think it would be wrong to argue as if there were only two sets of
names, common and scientific. There is a third set of names and that is
standardised English (or Afrikaans or German or whatever) names.
Unfortunately this list of standardised English names is sometimes
referred to as "common names", which they are not.

For me as a non-scientist birder, this set of standardised names is very
important, because they help me to understand better to which birds
field guides and popular articles refer to, as they are unambiguous.
Personally I would have preferred some other choices for the
standardised list, but I don't think any list would make all birders
happy, so I accept the standardised list as it is. Life for me is much
easier with it than it would have been without it.

I can accept that most authors of bird guides will use the "standardised" names; it would probably also be worthwhile to have a place where common names could be collected - possibly attached to Opus or added as a comment to the species page in the database?
 

Steve Dudley

aka The Toadsnatcher
I wish to correct an misconception. The BOU is not responsible for trying to standardise English names. The BOU follows the International Ornithological Congress on English names and have recently adopted their recommendations (Gill & Wright 2006, Birds of the World: recommended English names) for international use English names, whilst at the same time retaining English vernacular names. The latest (7th) edition of the British List uses both and we reitereated this in one of our recent reports (BOURC 35th report) - see also the BOU website.

Steve
British Ornithologists' Union
 

Xenospiza

Distracted
Farnboro John said:
Edward said:
Farnboro John said:
When did you last see a Bearded Reedling, as well?
I think you mean Bearded Parrotbill, at least according to the latest volume of HBW.
That would be it then, my mistake. What a tit - sorry parrotbill
But as it has been found not be a parrotbill after all (HBW's taxonomy... pfff), we can at least forget about that one!
 

chowchilla

Maderator.
I went birding the other day and saw Peewits and a Plover Bird. I also saw a pair of Skimmers and a Sparrowhawk.

According to my field guide however I actually saw Magpie Larks (which are neither Magpies nor Larks), a Masked Lapwing, a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows (which are not swallows) and a Nankeen Kestrel!

I love local names...:bounce:
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
But as it has been found not be a parrotbill after all (HBW's taxonomy... pfff), we can at least forget about that one!

and lets not forget that it doesn't even have a beard - a moustache like a Mexican bandit - yes, but a beard - no.

Anyone for Moustached Reedling?
 

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