Birds of East Asia & Mainland Southeast Asia
Glossary of Species Names in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese
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:
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:
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.
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.