Vernacular names

To: Syd Curtis <>
Subject: Vernacular names
From: Hugo Phillipps <>
Date: Tue, 11 Jun 2002 12:50:38 +1000
Hi Syd -

At 10:47 PM 10/06/02 +1000, you wrote:
>When there is a common name in common use in Australia, and a different
>common name for the same species elsewhere, is there any reason other than
>Australia's all too common cultural cringe, why we should change to conform
>to some other community's usage?

A misconception is that birds generally have two principal name categories
- the scientific and the 'common'.  The reality is (at least with English
language speakers) that there are THREE categories, the scientific, the
standard (or recommended) English name, and the vernacular or local name
(of which there may be many).  Sometimes the standard and vernacular are
the same, sometimes not.  The functions of these categories are different:

Scientific names reflect current taxonomy and may change with taxonomic
reexamination.  Despite some people believing that they are the most
fundamental or 'official' names, they are mutable and likely to continue so.

Recommended English Names (RENs - with regard to Australian birds, those
published in Christidis & Boles, The Taxonomy and Species of Birds of
Australia and its Territories, 1994 (C&B)) are intended to confer stability
and provide a standard  that is recognised internationally - so, for
example, a birder from Canada, a zoologist from South Africa, a town
planner from Tasmania and a conservation activist from Kalgoorlie can talk
to one another about birds and not be confused.  I don't know if there are
equivalents of RENS in other languages, but there probably should be for
the main international languages at least.  The main requirements of a REN
are stability and commonality of usage.  I personally dislike many RENs for
aesthetic or sentimental reasons, but my prejudices are utterly irrelevant
to their function.

Vernacular names.  Yes, Syd, call the birds whatever you like.  You DON'T
have to conform.  If you are with people who understand those particular
pet, local or historical names, there is no problem.  However, vernaculars
are not set in stone; many Aboriginal names have disappeared from popular
usage - and so have many which were used by European settlers last century.
 Vernaculars with restricted usage are great for local newsletters, poetry,
word-games, historical research and many other purposes.  They are not so
good for national and international journals and listservers.

Much prejudice about what names we should use seems to stem from, firstly,
confusion about the different functions of RENs and vernaculars (e.g. by
lumping them as 'common' names and, secondly, from sentiment that the names
WE grew up with, and feel warm and fuzzy about, should be the ones that
EVERYBODY should use.  Since RENs were derived from vernacular names, we
want OUR vernacular names to have been the ones chosen.  In the same way
you can get birders in a particular state feeling that they 'own' the birds
of that state (especially the endemics) and resent 'outsiders' calling the
birds by different names.

A lot of work was done to arrive at the present list of RENs in C&B,
including getting members of bird clubs to vote on many of them.  The
process was transparent and about as democratic as possible in the
circumstances.  The introduction to C&B covers the reasoning behind the
decisions and is essential reading for anyone wishing to explore the
arguments further.

That the issue continues to generate such heat says something about human
psychology - and maybe sometimes about birding politics - but the birds
don't care!


Hugo Phillipps
Communications Coordinator
Birds Australia
415 Riversdale Road
HAWTHORN EAST 3123, Australia
Tel: (03) 9882 2622, fax: (03) 9882 2677
Email: <>
Website: <>

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