Notes to Glossary of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese Bird Names

The state of standardisation of bird names in CJV


Other sections:
Guide to the Glossary
The development of bird names in CJV
How the common names have been 'regularised'
The influence of orthography
Why I got involved in this glossary
The writing of Japanese bird names in Chinese characters


The modern taxonomy of plant and animal species was started in the eighteenth century by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus began the convention of giving each species a unique name in Latin. In the case of birds, there are now comprehensive lists of scientific names for all known bird species of the world.

Alongside the scientific names, scientists have also created standardised names in the vernacular languages, known as 'common names'. There are standard lists of common bird names in English, German, French, and other major international languages.

Neat as this may sound, the naming of birds is far from stable. As more scientific knowledge comes to light, classifications and scientific names continue to evolve. One species may end up with more than one scientific name, varying from researcher to researcher and country to country depending on the classification. Advances in molecular biology have recently caused a revolution in the classification of birds, which has been accepted at varying rates by different researchers.

Common names also show considerable variation, especially in English, which is spoken in a number of countries over several different continents. For instance, what is known as the 'Eastern marsh harrier' to most ornithologists is recorded as the 'Papuan harrier' in Australian bird lists. And now that English is the lingua franca for bird names, it is fair game for ornithologists around the world to tamper with. Chinese ornithologists have tinkered with the English common names for political, nationalistic, or other reasons.

In other languages the level of standardization of common names tends to depend on the economic, scientific, and technological level of the country in question. Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese are instructive examples.

The Japanese started studying and classifying birds according to the modern scientific system in the 19th century. Japanese now stands on a par with the major European languages in the development of common names:

  1. Existence of standard names: Standard common names are firmly in place for scientific use. A standard Japanese name exists for virtually every species of bird in the world, although there are gaps caused by the conservatism of the scientific establishment in coming up with and accepting names for new species or splits.
  2. Dissemination of standard names: The standard names are carried by general-use dictionaries, often with definitions in terms of family and genus. Japanese reference books and nature programs make a point of adhering to the standard names. However, in some contexts there is an unfortunate habit of using katakana English rather than checking up the correct Japanese common name. To take one example, New Zealand tourism brochures talk of going to see the howaito heron ('white heron') rather than the shira-sagi or the ganetto ('gannet') rather than the katsuo-dori, presumably because tourists would not want to travel thousands of kilometres to see something as ordinary as a shira-sagi or katsuo-dori!
  3. Popular awareness of standard names: Assessing general awareness of the common names is a subjective matter, but it appears to be relatively high in Japan (again with the caveat about directly using transliterated English noted above).
  4. Noting of alternative names: Alternative names are routinely noted in dictionaries. Lists of regional bird names are available, even on the Internet. (Ironically, the availability of alternative names may be a barometer of how firmly the standard names themselves are established.)

Japanese also faces a peculiar problem of orthography. Chinese characters were traditionally used to write bird names, but their fit with the Japanese vocabulary was surprisingly poor. (See the Writing of Japanese Bird Names in Chinese Characters). Japanese scientists therefore shifted to phonetic katakana for representing the scientific names of birds, animals, and plants, thus sidestepping the problems of Chinese characters. This practice is widely adopted for both academic and popular scientific usage. However, Chinese characters or hiragana (also a phonetic script) are still used for non-scientific purposes such as poetry and other literature, etc.

Despite a tradition of classifying and describing birds that dates back to well before the Ming dynasty, Chinese lagged behind Japanese in the modern standardisation of bird names. Modern ornithology essentially started with pioneering Europeans in the 19th century, followed by Japanese ornithologists in Taiwan in the early 20th century. Chinese ornithologists have only come to the fore in the past 50 years. On the criteria for the progress of standardisation, Chinese fares as follows:

  1. Existence of standard names: A set of standard bird names is recognised and used by mainland ornithologists, although considerable variation can be found, often in minor points. The differences are much greater between Mainland and Taiwan bird names. Zheng Guangmei's list of Chinese names for all the bird species in the world which appeared in 2002 was not the first such list. A list by Cheng Tso-Hsin appeared in the 1990s and was updated posthumously in 2002. The two lists have considerable differences, especially with regard to names for birds outside China.
  2. Dissemination of standard names: The standard names are carried in general-use dictionaries, with definitions given in terms of the scientific taxonomy. Other reference books also use the standard names. However, standardised names are widely regarded as specialised and academic, discouraging their wider use. In some areas Mainland scientific usage is divorced from ordinary usage and is not yet reflected in generalist dictionaries (see Accipitridae).
  3. Popular awareness of standard names: Awareness of the standard names (or even anything other than the most popular bird names) appears to be extremely low amongst large segments of the population, including educated speakers in the city. Confusion among names is common and a lack of awareness of birds in general is rife. Apart from common birds like sparrows, cranes, crows, ducks, hawks, etc., the vast majority of Chinese appear to be familiar only with birds that can be eaten or put in a cage.
  4. Noting of alternative names: The Chinese have a long tradition of noting local popular variants. Alternative names are carried by dictionaries and on some Internet sites. (Some standard Mainland dictionaries follow a doctrinaire approach, filtering out words that are not 'officially approved' although widely used -- see note at Pelecanidae). However, one cannot help but harbour the suspicion that some of these alternative names have little currency except in lists of alternative names!

Bird names in some ways reflect the situation in China as a whole. The size of the country, its huge population, and its linguistic diversity make it difficult to establish a firm standard. It's not uncommon in Chinese to have several different terms, either regionally or stylistically defined, for one concept (for a simple example, see the three words for 'week' in Chinese). The political split between the Mainland and Taiwan is also mirrored in bird names, with only limited acknowledgement of each other's existence. Taiwan to a considerable extent follows the tradition laid down by Japanese ornithologists during the Japanese colonial period. The Mainland has elaborated its own system of names through the work of ornithologists such as the late Professor Cheng Tso Hsin, who was educated at the University of Michigan and was a major figure in world ornithology. Cheng's references include many Western (mainly English-language) sources but few, if any, Japanese.

Orthography also presents some problems in bird names. Many names use obscure characters that not all Chinese speakers can read correctly. Some do not even appear in most dictionaries. This is exacerbated by the use of unauthorised simplified characters by mainland ornithologists (see Accipitrinae and Ardeidae).

As a standardised modern language, Vietnamese is much newer than either Chinese or Japanese. The current writing system was adopted only in the early 20th century and language standardisation was hindered by colonialism and partition. The development of standard bird names has taken place in recent years, particularly through the work of Professor Vo Quy of the Vietnam National University. Because standardisation is at an early stage, there is still much confusion in bird names.

  1. Existence of standard names: Standardised names exist for all birds found in Vietnam, although in some cases the same name is given to two types of bird. There is no list for all the species in the world.
  2. Dissemination of standard names: General monolingual dictionaries often fail to follow the official names, either giving different meanings or completely ignoring the official terms. Definitions are not phrased in terms of the scientific taxonomy, making identification difficult. Many names in bilingual dictionaries are inaccurate or incorrect. Many names found in older bilingual dictionaries are not listed in either the official terminology or monolingual dictionaries.
  3. Popular awareness of standard names: It can be assumed that the standard names are not yet widely known or accepted among the population.
  4. Noting of alternative names: Because the standardised names have yet to properly take root, no attempts appear to have been made at this stage to collect or systematise non-official terms (i.e., popular or local terms). Bilingual dictionaries do list variant versions of names, although often incorrectly.

The relatively poor degree of adoption and diffusion of standard vocabulary is not unusual in Vietnamese. Whatever problems of standardisation they may have, both Chinese and Japanese are major languages which possess a political, economic, demographic and historical 'critical mass'. Vietnam, on the other hand, is a smaller country that lies on the fringes of many international developments and has long been subject to control, domination, or influence from other cultures -- in particular, Chinese, French, and American -- posing difficulties in imposing a single linguistic standard. If one model is imposed as standard, it has to compete with other models that have their own validity or influence. For instance, unlike Chinese or Japanese, Vietnam has been unable to come up with a unified approach to the naming of either chemical substances or foreign countries. Both areas started out from a Chinese background, moved through a phase of French influence (although with Vietnamisation of spelling), and are now entering a phase of taking English as the international standard. This is probably inevitable given the use of the Latin alphabet to write Vietnamese, which makes the language ripe for direct influence from the West. While bird names are spared the worst excesses of these trends, the difficulties of adopting and enforcing a single standard remain.