Thursday, 27 August 2015

Whose Australian Bird?

In my post of book reviews a couple of days ago I made an observation that Romance languages use the possessive element in bird names more than other languages.  That was followed by the suggestion that a research project was available.

The weather today was such that an indoor project was quite welcome so I got stuck into it.  (And a few other linguistic/historic byways.)

Before getting to the results a few words about methods are both important and interesting.


There are 2,368 species included in Whose Bird (Beolens and Watkins).  Looking all of them up would be a huge task, especially for something essentially trivial.  So I decided to restrict myself to the species including  a person's name in their vernacular name as listed as the official entry in Australian Bird Names (Fraser and Gray).  This was a much more manageable 43 species!

To get the names in other languages I referred to Avibase.  The species pages there include two lists of names as shown here:
I only referred to the left-hand list which are I presume the official names in those languages. I didn't consider the entries in Japanese or Chinese characters (but am able to deal with Russian sufficiently to work out if one of the words should be pronounced like the name in question).  There were usually 14 to 17 in-scope languages in the list.  (Newell's Sandpiper only had 10 entries, probably because the bird only breeds on Hawaii and/or is often regarded as a subspecies of Townsend's Shearwater).  The list shown is more or less the standard list of 15: a few (7) species did not include Portuguese thus dropping to 14.  Others (14) had Icelandic added (scoring 16 possibles) while a few (8) others also had Brazilian Portuguese - not always the same as the mother tongue - giving 17.

On the subject of Portuguese, I once mentioned to a work colleague from Mozambique that I had a few words of Spanish and he replied "That's nearly the same as Portuguese: they just pronounce it wrongly."

I also referred back to Whose Bird to collect the year in which the bird was first described and nationality of the honoree.  I wondered if there would be some correlation between these characteristics and the adoption of the name.


Getting back to the use of possessives in other languages, I rated Spanish, French, Italian and both forms of Portuguese as Romance languages.  In total they were listed 175 times for my set of name-birds. The name - or a word clearly a form of it - appeared 114 times (65%).  In the other languages 479 occurrences showed 101 names (21%).   This does at least support my gut feeling which began this investigation.

In terms of individual species the species with the greatest number of foreign usages was the Gouldian Finch, where 7 other languages used Mrs Gould's name.  In 3 cases (Leach's Storm-petrel, Major Mitchell Cockatoo and Latham's Snipe) no other languages had adopted the name: I'll come back to this in the analysis section below.

The characteristics of date of naming and nationality of honoree are summarised in this table-image.
I have included Reunion for the case of Armand Barau.  He was born there and lived there all his life.  The fact that certain people, who have the good fortune to live on the banks of the Seine, regard the place as part of France does not fuss me at all.  

It was a tad difficult in some cases to decide how to treat people who moved around a lot.  Of course, as these folk were often explorers, diplomats or soldiers that is often what they did.  Generally I followed the views of Beolens and Watkins: if they were ambivalent (or simply silent) on nationality I employed Uncle Google and came to my own conclusion - birthplace being a good guide.  From later research Layard is a good example of the problem: I concluded he was British!


Low uptake

I will start with the three cases where no other language uses the name.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo: that is more commonly referred to as something involving the word for 'pink'.  Indeed the main name used in Avibase English is Pink Cockatoo.  These are cockatoos which looks pretty pink to me:
Nice try no cigar.  They are Galahs.  This is a Major Mitchell's Cockatoo - admittedly, also pink.
Interestingly in French and Italian the vernacular name refers to Leadbeater, who showed the type specimen - presumably in a non-motile condition - to Vigors, as does the binomial Cacatua leadbeateri.

Latham's Snipe: Just about every language other than English refers to Japanese somewhere in the vernacular name.  While this is fair enough as the bird is only found in Japan (in austral Winter) there ae at least 5 other snipe species found in the land of manga.

Leach's Storm-petrel:  I am fascinated as to why Mr Leach isn't more widely recognised.  Perhaps it is because he found the corpse in someone else's collection?  Perhaps because the bird is fairly widely distributed  ...
 .. (thanks for the map ebird) seafarers from other countries had already given it a name by the time Viellot described and named it?

High uptake

Gouldian Finch (11 languages): My suspicion is that this is such a widely used name because the finch is a very spiffy bird popularly kept as a cage-bird and when imported the vendors used the name favoured by Gould (who was, I understand, not totally averse to publicity).

Albert's Lyrebird (10 languages):  Definitely not a popular cage-bird.  Only found in dense forest in a small area in the ranges on the border of New South Wales and Cane-toad country (aka Queensland).
Perhaps the widespread acceptance of the name is due to the name being awarded by a Pom (Gould) but formally published by a Frenchman (Bonaparte)?  That entente cordiale might also explain why the Germans don't use it; they prefer Braunr├╝cken-Leierschwanz (= "brown moving lyretail": a fair description of the bird) despite Bertie's birth in Saxe-Coburg and Gotha!


A large number of British folk is not a surprise since most of the exploration etc was in the 19th Century.  I was surprised to find that 8 of the species were named after were Americans (although 2 folk (Horsfield and Wilson got two each).  


I didn't score which individual languages used the possessives in most cases.  Of the 10 species in which which only one other language used the possessive:
  • 5 were so-named in Swedish (must be something to do with teachings of Linnaeus), 
  • 2 Dutch 
  • 1 each for Czech, Danish and German,
Some more gut feelings: 
  • Neither Finnish nor the European-character Japanese used the possessive nouns for any species. 
  • There was a high use of possessives in the French species names. In several cases I noted that French was the only Romance language to use it.  
  • There were 7 cases in which no Romance languages used the possessives.

Future directions

I think I have taken the Australian examples about as far as they can go.  From the appearance of the weather forecast it looks as though there may be some more opportunities for indoor work so I will sample the listings in Whose Bird (I'm not sure how at this stage) and see what that turns up.

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