The language(s) of science: part 1

Posts19Likes13Joined1/6/2020LocationLondon / GB
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Hey team,


Hope you guys missed the blog posts (and sorry for the delay). I've recently come across a few thought-provoking pieces about the place that language occupies in science. The pieces are connected, in a way, but discussing them together would make for a very long post. So we'll talk about the scientific names of living things in part 1 today, and question the necessity of a lingua franca in science tomorrow. Let's start. 


Since the 18th century, all living things are given a two-part name: think Homo Sapiens (humans), Escherichia Coli (a bacterium), or Canis familiaris (dogs). Despite these scientific names being colloquially known as Latin names, they can be derived from any language, be a homage to a person, or even a joke. There are valid reasons for the prevalence of this naming system: it's adopted worldwide, and allows for short and (mostly) unique names. As far as scientific codification goes, the system does the job. 


However, a proposal has recently been put forward to restore Indigenous names within the scientific nomenclature. More and more often, Indigenous Peoples are consulted when naming, or renaming, new species (or landmarks). What the present proposal asks, however, is for the Indigenous names to be systematically, and even retroactively, included into the scientific names (turning Diospyros virginiana into Diospyros pessamin, for example). 


From the paper: "for Indigenous Peoples, [names] may also embody history, a sense of place and a right to belong". And "the changes we propose would herald an important step in the affirmation of Indigenous People’s contribution to nomenclature and knowledge"


Support for the idea has been voiced before and the arguments are sound. The shift would acknowledge that Indigenous names predate scientific ones by centuries. It would motivate scientists to recognise and draw from the age-old knowledge encoded within Indigenous names (an unsurprising fact, given how indispensable that information was and still is to the survival and thriving of Indigenous People's within their ecosystems). And it would celebrate the beautiful connection with nature that defines so much of indigenous languages and cultures. 


Is there a downside to this proposal? There seems to be little, if any: the underlying two-part naming system is left intact and the authors acknowledge that the number of species that would have to be renamed is small; the sum of human knowledge stands to grow, as does recognition of indigenous cultures; and the resulting names will be less Western-centric. 


In addition to the proposal's inherent merits, it also benefits from a favorable social context, which previous attempts didn't have, so it might well garner enough support to get implemented. What are your thoughts about this?

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#1
Posts32Likes20Joined26/12/2019LocationBE
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Even in latin languages countries - nobody but a few biologists use or know the latin names of living beings.

Many of the indigenous names are not unique. Take for example this root called witloof in Dutch, endive in France and chicon in French speaking Belgium. I'm sure there are many such examples around the world.

Another point is those indigenous languages have their own scripts, should biologists know all the scripts?

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#2
Posts19Likes13Joined1/6/2020LocationLondon / GB
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Learning Arabic - Standard, English, French, German, Russian

Hey Michel, thanks for your contribution. 


wrote:
Even in latin languages countries - nobody but a few biologists use or know the latin names of living beings.

The proposal is directed mainly at biologists (the original paper appears in the Communications Biology journal). Also, it bears repeating that scientific names, despite being known colloquially as Latin, are not necessarily in Latin. 


wrote:
Many of the indigenous names are not unique. Take for example this root called witloof in Dutch, endive in France and chicon in French speaking Belgium. I'm sure there are many such examples around the world.

The first article I've linked, and the paper itself, explicitly mention uniqueness of names as being a desirable feature that the current system strives for, but does not always have (the authors offer the example of 20 species being named after the same missionary). They express their hope that a renaming, among other things, would help make scientific names more unique. 


wrote:
Another point is those indigenous languages have their own scripts, should biologists know all the scripts?

I don't think this is requested in any of the articles or the paper itself. Surely this is not required to respect the spirit of the proposal?

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