Friday, 11 September 2015

Whose international bird?

I have recently put up a post exploring the languages which recite the names of people in Australian bird's names.  I concluded by saying I needed to look at this for some birds not found in Australia.  This is a report on that later investigation.


As there isn't an international equivalent of Australian Bird Names (Fraser and Gray) I will use the species listed in  Whose Bird (Beolens and Watkins) as my population.  I am not going to try to go through all 2300+ species which they consider, and have decided, at least to begin with to select 36 birds from that book.

I arrived at 36 in two ways:
  • there are 361 pages in the species discussions so going for every 10th page is straightforward; and
  • it is close to the 43 species considered for Australia.
To select the species I asked Excel, using the RANDBETWEEN function to give me two random numbers between 1 and 10.  The first number R1 was to be the starting page number (then take every page ending with that digit).  The second number R2 was to be the number of species counting down that page (eg if R2=7 I would go to the seventh species listed on the selected page).  I restricted both random numbers to between 1 and 10, reasoning that in the case of R2 the order of birds on a page is pretty random so it didn't matter if I went for an early species.

Some special cases deserve mention:

  1. if the selected bird is one already covered in the Australian list I will go down another R2 species;
  2. should there not be R2 species on the selected page I will move on to the next page keeping the count running (I'd only expected this to be a problem if R2 is above  about 5);
  3. If the bird is extinct go a further R2 species.  (Extinction might lead people to not consider it worthy of naming!)

In the event R1 =1 and R2=3.  Adding a bit more randomisation, the first page with species accounts is #17 so my first page is #21.  Proving that Murphy is always around - I refer to he of the Law, not the guy honoured in Murphy's Petrel - there were only two species on page 21 and we were straight into special case 2 and choosing the 1st bird listed on page 22!   Here we only just miss special case 1 as Albert's Lyrebird is the second species on that page!

I also collected a few other items.
  • I recorded which countries provided a name for the species in Avibase and whether that name included the possessive noun.
  • I counted the number of alternative names offered in Whose Bird and whether they included the Headline name from Avibase.  (I shall probably go back to Fraser and Gray and make an assessment of this attribute of their book.)
  • When the Avibase 'headline name' was not the Whose Bird name, whether the English names listed in Avibase included the Whose Bird name.


This exercise started off as a continuation of the previous project looking at the use of possessive nouns (from the intro to Whose Bird I realise that the correct term is "eponym" so will use that from now on) in vernacular bird names in various languages.  However it soon became apparent that there was additional food for thought in the comparison of the names that appear in Avibase and "whose Bird".  I will cover this more in the analysis sections below but will start with an observation that only 7 of 36 species used the same headline name in both sources.  That is a much lower proportion than in the comparison of Australian Bird names and Avibase.  In a further 21 cases the Whose Bird headline name appeared in the Avibase 'alternative English names'.

My initial thought had been that the Romance languages (Spanish, French Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese) adopted the eponyms more than the other 12 languages shown in main body of Avibase entries.  That was certainly the case for the Australian birds and so it is now.  
  • 38% of Romance language citations used the eponym while the equivalent % for other languages was 9%. 
  •  Interestingly a similar imbalance was found when looking at the number of occasions when Avibase didn't list an entry for a language under a species: In this second exercise Avibase listed 61% of possible entries for Romance languages but only 34% for other languages
At the individual language level in the Romance area Portuguese was not listed for 19 species and Portuguese (Brazilian) was not listed for 31 species.  French was cited 35/36 possible times and used the English eponym 24 times.  WRT other languages Icelandic was not cited 32 times (and did not use the eponym at all).  Japanese, Norwegian and Polish were cited a little more frequently but did not use the eponym.

In Whose Bird 8 species had a single name offered (obviously including the eponym).  For the remaining 28 species 49 alternatives were offered with a maximum of 4 alternatives for Jerdon's mannikin (which didn't include Black-throated Munia, the headline name in Avibase)!

The allocation across nationality of honoree is interesting (and will be looked at more  below).  This table-image summarises the situation.

The data in the column labelled 'book' is taken directly from Whose Bird.  It is interesting that I appear to have over-sampled Germans and under-sampled the French.  I can't see an obvious bias which led to this, so welcome to the world of samples!



This project started off looking at the extent to which eponyms were adopted more in Romance languages.  As stated above this has been confirmed in the international study.  Of course the project is biased in that the starting point is species in which the English name includes an eponym: perhaps Finnish and Portuguese Brazilian have a raft of other bird names honouring people (probably Sibelius and Pele respectively).

In this second stage it appears that the use of eponyms is even more pronounced in French than the other Romance languages.  A few ideas as to why this is so are offered for consideration.  
  • France is geographically very close to England so the exchange of scientific ideas - which must have been influenced by distance in the days before email etc - would have been easier between countries that are close.
  • Latin, the basis of Romance languages, was the formal language of science until very recently.  So that puts a loading on Romance languages sharing detail with English.
  • My gut feeling is that many more schools in the UK taught French than German.  Again easier to exchange ideas.

Comparison of Australian names and International names

Roughly 10% of the World's birds are on the Australian list (both the denominator and numerator of that fraction are very rubbery so I am not going to try to refine it).  In contrast my list of Australian eponyms was only 2% (43*100/2246) of the list in Whose Bird.  To a large extent that is because my Australian list was only the 'official-common' names: examining the index of Australian Bird Names gave a list of 160 eponyms (or 7.1% of the Whose bird list - a much less significant understatement).

It is also noteworthy that all bar one of the Australian names appear in the headline names in Avibase, while as noted above only 7 names are headline in both lists. 8 of the Whose Bird eponyms don't even appear as an alternative in the English names in Avibase. 

I suspect that there has been a trend away from eponyms as official names.  This may reflect a less huperetocratic (i.e. rule by being an underling, proposing something to suck up to your boss) approach in taxonomy.  Or possibly a recognition that honouring one person automatically disses several others!  

What follows is gut-feeling, and I don't feel like doing the work needed to formally resolve it.  In the Australian official list I felt that most of the eponyms were non-passerines (especially pelagic species).  If the 'alternative" names are included many more passerines come into view.  The latter matches my view of the Whose Bird list.

1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

I received the following comment by email from Kevin Windle from the School of Language Studies at the Australian National University


I was fascinated to read of your investigations of common names in various languages, as I have

spent quite a bit of time in the past looking into them myself in the languages I translate, that is, mostly Slavonic. I had not looked at eponyms, being more interested in comparative etymology, but have now returned to my old lists and various books to see what eponyms turned up.

Briefly, the results for Polish (from the excellent Polskie nazwy ptaków krajowych by Janusz Strutyński) are five: biegus Temmincka (T’s stint), drozd Naumanna (N’s thrush), gęś Heckela (Lesser white front), labędź Bewicka (B’s swan), sowa Tengmalma (T’s owl). However, in all cases except N’s thrush these names coexist with another, usually more descriptive name, which seems to be preferred.

For Russian, from the very comprehensive Katalog ptits SSSR by A.I. Ivanov, fourteen. That’s too many to list unless you are particularly interested.

I once spent some hours in the natural history museum in Struga, Macedonia, noting down the Mac. names of all the species displayed. (I know of no other convenient sources for Macedonian.) My list shows no eponyms, but that may be partly because of the range of species in that collection.

My sources for Czech, Slovak and Serbo-Croat also show no eponyms, but again their lists are not comprehensive.

Just thought I’d let you know.