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

The Development of Bird Names in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese



Other sections:
Guide to the Glossary
The state of standardisation 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 bird names contained in this site by themselves tell their own story of the history and development of bird names in the three languages. Cutting across four sets of names reveals interesting parallels and contrasts, throwing light on the ways in which official bird names have developed and offering fascinating glimpses of the history, culture, thinking, and language of the societies that produced them. In the following sections I present a brief sketch of what was involved, particularly in Chinese. The Chinese section draws on prefaces written by the late Professor Cheng Tso Hsin (郑作新), the doyen of ornithological studies in China.

Although China had its own ancient tradition of bird description, which also had a large influence on pre-modern Japan, it was foreign ornithologists who did most of the initial work of identifying and classifying Oriental birds according to the methods of Western science at the height of 19th century colonialism. Much of this was done in English or French. Explorers and collectors of this era are still commemorated in bird names in East Asia -- names like Temminck, Swinhoe, David, Blakiston, Prezinski, Hume, and others.

When scientists in Japan, China, and Vietnam came to the field, they had to develop and adapt their own traditional bird names to the requirements of the scientific classification. The English language developed its 'common names' over a period of well over 100 years. The CJV languages, especially Chinese and Vietnamese, had a much shorter period of time to work with.

Chinese bird names

1. Awareness of a Long Tradition

China has by far the longest written tradition, culture, and civilisation of any country in East Asia, completely dwarfing those of Japan and Vietnam. Professor Cheng Tso Hsin begins his preface to 'A Field Guide to the Birds of China' (see Sources) with a reference to the Shang dynasty, which flourished between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. According to this preface, precursors of the modern characters for 'bird', 'pheasant', 'chicken', and 'sparrow' can be made out in oracle bones from this era. (Oracle bones were tortoise shells or other bones exposed to fire so the future could be read from the resulting cracks. Forecasts were then incised in the shell for preservation.).

The existence of such words is not remarkable -- the ancestors of the Japanese and the Vietnamese presumably had names for familiar birds, too -- but the existence of written forms is. Unfortunately, many characters cannot be identified and the pronunciation of those that can is virtually impossible to reconstruct as characters are not very helpful for determining earlier stages of pronunciation.

The oracle bones were lost to the world until their rediscovery in the 20th century and do not form a part of what was historically the 'Chinese tradition'. The Chinese Classical tradition actually begins around the time of Confucius. The Confucian 'Book of Songs' (3,000 years old) was the first relatively reliable source of bird names, listing about 70 types. The flora and fauna of the Book of Songs was analysed in an early work, 尔雅 Ěr yǎ, in the Qin-Han era (the time of the Roman Empire). A number of works listing types of birds appeared in the following centuries, including the Later Han (AD 25-220), Tang (618-907), and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

In 1596, during the Ming dynasty, Li Shi-zhen's 本草纲目 Běn Cǎo Gāng Mù or 'Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica' was published, constituting a distillation of Chinese knowledge concerning the naming, background, flavour, and medicinal uses and effects of a whole range of fauna and flora. Several sections are devoted to birds, listing a total of 77 species. This includes mythical species such as the phoenix and semi-mythical species such as the ostrich.

Ironically, rather than acting as a catalyst to further studies, the Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica came to be seen as the 'last word' on its subject. Its very comprehensiveness was a barrier to further advance.

Besides the Compendium, a second important work of the late Ming dynasty was the 三才图会 Sān Cái Tú Huì 'Three Talents Pictorial Series Books' published in 1609, which featured birds among their many illustrations, although many were unclear or unreliable.


2. The Origins of Modern Names - Supremacy of the Written Tradition

When it came to assigning common names in modern times, it's not surprising that naturalists, as part of the educated elite, should have reached back into the Chinese written tradition. The language of the common people was too rough and ready, too earthy, or just too common for respectable use. The language of the 1596 'Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica' is a better source for many scientific names of birds than modern colloquial usage.

An example of this is the owls. Whereas owls are called 猫头鹰 māo-tóu-yīng ('cat-headed hawks') by ordinary people today, naturalists prefer names like xiāo and 鸱鸮 chī-xiāo, both listed in the Compendium.

In some cases both literary and popular terms are used in Chinese. The popular word for 'swan', 天鹅 tiān-é, is used on the Mainland, but the literary name, , is also used for some species of swan in Taiwan.

Of course, some changes in meaning are too great to disregard. For instance, chī 'owl' meant 'sparrow hawk' at the time the Compendium was compiled, but this usage has died out completely and is not used in the official bird names. chī is now a literary and official term used only in connection with owls and nightjars.

Scientists sometimes turn to literary names to coin new names for birds. An example is lín-jú ('forest shrike'), a direct translation of the English 'wood shrike'. The word is the literary Chinese term for 'shrike'.


3. Alternative Names and Dialect

One feature of the Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica and early collections of bird names is the practice of quoting 'alternative names'. In many cases these are geographical or dialectal variants. Since the Compendium draws liberally on earlier works, some words listed may have already have become archaic at the time.

The custom of listing alternative names continues to the present day. For instance, both Mainland and Taiwanese web sites give alternative names for many types of bird, providing a rich source of vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the alternatives tend to be collected indiscriminately, with no indication of their currency or status. Many terms appear to be quite rustic, some are alternative scientific names that have fallen by the wayside, and some are Japanese words with doubtful status in Chinese.

Dialect is another problem. There is a tradition in Chinese of equating forms between dialects, which facilitates the free flow of terms from one dialect to another. This practice is based on the script, where the same character can be read in different ways, according to the the speaker's dialect. But this practice gives an erroneous impression. For instance, Taiwanese sites give names that appear to be purely Hokkienese, not Mandarin. By listing them alongside Mandarin forms, the impression is given that these words are valid expressions in Mandarin, even though they may never be spoken or used as Mandarin words. Similar problems can be found with Mainland bird names.


4. Lateness in taking up Western tradition of bird classification

As pointed out above, the collection and classification of birds in the 19th century was carried out by Europeans. A number of books on the birds of China were published, including the first list of Chinese birds by Robert Swinhoe in 1863 and David and Oustalet's Les oiseaux de Chine in 1875. In the 20th century, Gee, Moffett, and Wilder published 'A tentative list of Chinese birds' in 1926-27, revised by Gee in 1931. It was not until the late 1940s that the Chinese came into their own, with Professor Cheng Tso Hsin's first checklist of Chinese birds in 1947. After that, Professor Cheng played a central role in researching the avifauna of China until his death in 1998.

Given the need to come up with a huge range of official names, Chinese ornithologists seem to have gone through and mass-produced names in conformity with the scientific taxonomy. If names did not conform with the taxonomy, they were often changed. This may be one factor behind the extreme regularisation of official bird names in Chinese.


5. Japanese influence

One of the most intriguing aspects of official Chinese bird names is what appears to be a strong Japanese influence. Japanese ornithologists were already active in the 19th century, much earlier than the Chinese, and it is not surprising, given that both languages use Chinese characters, that the Chinese were influenced by Japanese usage.

What is interesting is the way that Japanese names have been borrowed. In virtually all cases involving bird names, the Japanese originally adopted Chinese characters to write a Japanese word. The character so borrowed is read in Japanese in what is known as the kun reading, the native reading. Come the early 20th century, wholesale borrowing took place from Japanese into Chinese. This was easy given that both languages used Chinese characters -- all the Chinese had to do to was take the Japanese written form (in Chinese characters) and treat it as a Chinese word.

This would not be a problem if the Japanese usage of Chinese characters was exactly the same as the Chinese. In fact, the Japanese usage of Chinese characters can be somewhat different. A trivial example is the word for 'red', which is aka in modern Japanese and hóng in modern Chinese. Where a bird name involves the colour red, Japanese normally uses aka and Chinese normally uses hóng. The word chì does, of course, exist in Chinese but is not the normal word for 'red'. When we find extensive use of chì rather than hóng in Chinese bird names, it strongly suggests that Chinese has been subtly influenced by the Japanese names.

More serious are cases where the Japanese have applied a Chinese character to a different bird from the original Chinese. One is the character dōng, which was originally used in the names of various birds in Chinese but used by the Japanese specifically for the tsugumi or thrush. Since there was no single word in Chinese for the thrushes, when it came to naming the thrushes in modern times, the Chinese took the character (tsugumi) and used it to mean 'thrush' in imitation of the Japanese usage. The borrowing did not involve the borrowing of pronunciation. While the meaning 'thrush' was borrowed into Chinese, the character was read dōng, not tsugumi. For more examples, see The Writing of Japanese Bird Names in Chinese Characters).

The Japanese influence can be difficult to disentangle given the long history of linguistic traffic between China and Japan. However, there are indications that the word 海燕 umi-tsubame ('sea swallow') in the meaning 'petrel' was borrowed from Japanese to Chinese (see Hydrobatinae). The use of the character for the robins also looks like it may have come from the Japanese word koma ('horse'), meaning 'robin' (see notes to Muscicapinae).

In some cases, however, what looks like borrowing from Japanese to Chinese can turn out to be a borrowing the other way. For instance, the Chinese word 郭公 guōgōng ('cuckoo') looks like a borrowing from Japanese, given that the Japanese pronunciation 郭公 kakkō sounds more like a cuckoo's call than the Chinese. This analysis, however, would be incorrect. The word is found in the 'Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica', marking it as indisputably Chinese. A possible explanation is that 郭公 kakkō was borrowed into Japanese from a Chinese dialect in which the pronunciation resembled the cry of the cuckoo more than it does in modern Mandarin.

Japanese borrowings are more common on Taiwan than on the Mainland (see below). Mainland ornithologists have eradicated many, but certainly not all, Japanese usages.


6. Taiwanese names vs Mainland names

Chinese and Taiwanese names seem to be derived from a similar naming tradition, but there are many differences. Some of the main differences are:


Japanese Bird Names

This section is presented in skeleton form at the moment as I have not yet made any solid enquiries into the history of Japanese bird names. However, I would expect that the following would be the main points. Especially interesting is the fact that the Japanese have been heavily influenced by the Chinese and the West in turns, but most of the names remain quintessentially Japanese. The present system of bird names was established in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


1. Bird Names in Classical Literature

Given the attention to nature found in Japanese Classical literature, bird names featured in poetry (such as the 万葉集 Man'yōshū collection and later Imperial collections of Japanese poetry) as well as prose literature such as novels and diaries. Song birds such as the Small cuckoo (hototogisu) and Bush warbler (uguisu) were favourites in ancient times. Like some insects, animals, and daily customs or instruments, birds were used as 'season words' in Japanese poetry. For instance, the song of the Bush warbler was conventionally regarded as a harbinger of spring. The mere mention of the bird indicated the time of year in which the poem was set.


2. Influence of Chinese Ming Dynasty Works

The 'Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica' and 'Three Talents Pictorial Series Books' were both huge hits when they reached Tokugawa Japan, inevitably inspiring Japanese imitations which were immensely popular. It is possibly at this time that the custom of writing Japanese bird names in Chinese became widespread. This custom is remarkable for the fact that entire Chinese words, written with two characters, were taken over and arbitrarily assigned a Japanese reading. An example is the word 鸊鷉 pìtī ('grebe'), which is used to write the native Japanese word kaitsuburi, also meaning 'grebe'. To understand this practice, imagine that English spelling required us to write Podiceps cristatus but pronounce it as 'great crested grebe'. While the custom of using whole Chinese words to write Japanese words exists in other fields, it is particularly common in bird names. (See also The Writing of Japanese Bird Names in Chinese Characters, and CJV Writing Systems).


3. Introduction of Western Ornithology

When Western learning reached Japan, the Japanese were particularly quick to take it up and apply it. Ornithology was no exception. Japanese ornithological studies appear to have begun in the 19th century. A number of Japanese words for bird species still bear traces of their Meiji era (late 19th - early 20th century) origins. The model of 'common names' that the Japanese adopted from the West was the 19th century variety, which is less radical than the strongly regularising model adopted by the Chinese in the 20th century. In naming birds, the Japanese followed the classic practice of giving the unmarked name to the common local type. Thus, suzume 'sparrow' refers to Passer montanus, which is the most commonly seen sparrow in Japan, not to P. domesticus as in the West. The 'non-common' species are then distinguished with a descriptor.

Interestingly, the original naming system still bears the traces of a bygone political order. The unmarked name of some bird species is the Taiwanese species -- that is, the Taiwanese species is treated as though it were the standard species seen in Japan. The reason for this is the fact that Taiwan was a Japanese colony when these names were decided on. Due to the conservatism of bird taxonomists, they have stayed that way. (Fortunately, this has not become a political problem -- yet!)

In their linguistic morphology, descriptors in Japanese bird names show some agglutinative features. For instance, the form zu ('head') and the adjective kuroi ('black') combine to form the descriptor zu-guro ('black-headed'). This descriptor can be derived from the sentence: zu ga kuroi 'the head is black'. (In fact, Zu is not a normal word for 'head' in Japanese, being found mainly in combined forms). In the combined form, kuro loses its adjectival ending -i and the initial consonant becomes voiced.

Sometimes a different order is followed, as in aka-gashira ('red-headed'). In this case, the form is derived from akai kashira ('red head'). Kashira is a rather archaic term meaning 'head'. Note that the first letter of kashira is voiced in the combined form. Akai also loses its adjectival ending -i.


4. Scientific Usage Dispenses with Characters

In order to minimise the confusion caused by the use of Chinese characters, which are quite complex in writing bird names, Japanese scientists adopted the custom of writing plant and animal species names in katakana. This script is strictly phonetic and greatly simplifies the problem of writing names. By reverting to a phonetic script, the historical link with Chinese tradition is cut and Japanese names appear as they really are -- almost always native words. In only a few cases has Japanese actually borrowed Chinese words, e.g. sekirei ('wagtail').


Vietnamese Bird Names

I have even less information on Vietnamese bird names than on Japanese. The following are a few points:


1. Traditional Vietnamese Names

Vietnamese, like any other language, has its traditional native names for birds. However, for much of their history the Vietnamese used Literary Chinese as their written language. The only system of writing Vietnamese that existed for many centuries was the chu nom, modelled on Chinese characters. This system never had the prestige of Literary Chinese and except for a very brief occasion was never officially recognised by the government. Needless to say, native Vietnamese bird names did occur in chu nom literature.


2. Borrowings From Chinese

Since Vietnamese was heavily influenced by Chinese during the period of more than two millennia when Chinese was the official written language, it has borrowed a number of bird names from Chinese, including Đại bàng ('eagle'), Yến ('swiftlet', originally 'swallow'), Én ('swallow'), Uyên ương ('Mandarin duck'), Bách thanh ('shrike'), Thiên nga ('swan'), Oanh ('oriole'), and Nhạn ('swallow', originally 'goose'). Some of these have changed their meaning in modern Vietnamese.

Names of cage birds also reveal influence from Chinese (see Estrildinae and Garrulacinae).


3. Recent Origins of Official Names

The fact that the official written language of Vietnam was based on a Confucian civilisation with its heartland in the North Chinese plain caused problems for the naming of native Vietnamese fauna and flora. This is shown by these words spoken by the Emperor Minh Mạnh to his court in 1840:

Up until now our names for plants, birds, trees, and animals have all been obediently inherited appellations. Many are still not self-evident. We must at one stroke investigate them and apply 'rectification of names' to their appellations... Of the various plants and trees, each has its own suitabilities, and if you violate their soil nature then you cannot grow them... Our country's borders are situated in the southern region. (Quoted from Vietnam and the Chinese Model by Alexander Woodside, Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard, 1988).

In fact, much of the system of modern official bird names in Vietnamese is of quite recent vintage. Much of the work on Vietnamese ornithology is due to Professor Vo Quy, who is still an active ornithologist and something of a celebrity in Vietnam. The naming system owes virtually nothing to either Chinese or English and appears to have been arrived at independently. It is marked by the use of a relatively small set of bird names, modified by a relatively small number of descriptors. Owing to Vietnamese word order, the descriptors follow the nouns they modify, unlike English, Chinese, and Japanese. The use of only a small number of terms means that the Vietnamese naming system is relatively simple, although names tend to be somewhat monotonous as a consequence. Unlike the Chinese system, which tries to organise species names by genus (birds in the same genus share similar names), Vietnamese official names are happy to use the same name across different genera and even families.

The Vietnamese system of names is very much an ornithologist's creation. Many names are not found in ordinary dictionaries, for example, the naturalists' name for the wood owls, . The word Diều, which in ordinary usage tends to refer to the kite, is used across a wide section of the Accipitrinae. On the other hand, the Vietnamese word for 'eagle', Ó, is sparingly used, being applied only to the osprey and a type of vulture. Sometimes names are even borrowed from other languages to fill perceived gaps, e.g., the traditional word for 'quail', Cun cút, has been assigned to the button quails and a French borrowing, Cay, assigned to the quails themselves