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Folk & pre-Linnaean taxonomy (21-Jan-03)

Folk taxonomic categories 1




Unique beginner (noun)

Contains only a single member, namely the group that includes all other groups

Plants (animals, all living things)

Life form (noun)

Usually only 5-10 of these, so as to include most other groups in the subordinate categories. Groups in this category are the largest that are distinguished by multiple, easily observable features.

Tree (vine, herb)

Compare life-form classes described by Raunkaier and used in plant ecology.

Generic (noun)

Most numerous category, usually with 500-800 entities being named. Groups in this category are the smallest that are distinguished by multiple, easily observable features. Usually monotypic; where polytypic, the organisms concerned are of great cultural importance.

Oak (maple, hawthorn)

Specific (adjective)

Often used as a binomial, so as to modify a generic name (see below). Where these entities are distinguished there are typically only 2 or 3, and rarely more than 10. Usually distinguished by a single feature such as color or size.

white, red, black, etc.

Varietal (adjective)

These are rare in folk taxonomies.

See example in Berlin (1973, p. 266) re bean varieties

Life forms

Names of life forms in some folk taxonomies may be taken from the names of generics, and so are described as polysemous (they have more than one referent). For example (Berlin 1973), Klamath people in Oregon used the word k'osh (Pinus sp.) for pines and for trees in general. Other examples of life forms and other categories discussed in class come from fieldwork in the John Crow Mountains of Jamaica (cf. Kelly & Dickinson 1985).

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Some generic taxa are aberrant in the way in which they don't fit into a single life form, or are totally unlike anything else known.

Examples from Berlin (1973):


The strangling epiphyte úwi (Clusia sp.) is not assigned by the Aguaruna Jivaro to either númi 'tree' or dáek 'liana' because of the way in which this genus develops from a liane-like strangler into a tree.

Clusia rosea, Fairchild Tropical Garden. Photo © T. A. Dickinson 2003.


In the folk botany of the Tzeltal Maya pehtak (Opuntia sp.) is not assigned to any life form since it is unlike any other plant known to them.

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These are distinguished within generic taxa of great cultural importance. Quite apart from any mythological significance, oaks are extremely important because of the uses that can be made of their wood.

Examples from the folk botany of English-speaking Ontario:

white oak

An alternate common name for white oak is stave oak, since its wood is preeminent for making barrel staves. Even though the early wood vessels are quite large, they become blocked with tyloses, cytoplasmic protrusions from adjacent parenchyma cells, with the result that containers made from the wood of white oak are impermeable.

red oak

The vessels of red oak lack these tyloses, and so the wood of red oak is used for flooring and furniture instead.

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Pre-Linnaean taxonomy

Theophrastus (ca. 373-287 BC), in his History of Plants (transl. A. Hort 1916), documented more than 300 plant names. Their structure makes it clear that he was preserving an existing folk taxonomy. For example, most specific names are given as binomials. In common with other folk taxonomies, however, some species are represented by uninomials that are (polysemous) generic names. The early 20th c. botanist E. L. Greene pointed out the following example.




Pinus picea

Peuce Idaia

P. maritima

Peuce conophoros

P. pinea

Peuce Paralios

P. halepensis

The writings of Theophrastus, like the Materia medica of the Byzantine physician Dioscorides were preserved in the Islamic world after the fall of Rome, and subsequently also in the monasteries of western Europe. In the latter they were used, and re-copied, but not improved upon. Only in the 16th c., when universities incorporated botany into their medical curricula, were there new attempts to accurately describe and catalog plants. The following names are those of some of the most important contributors to pre-Linnaean systematic botany. Virtually all of their works were written in Latin.

Cesalpino recognized importance of leaf arrangement, fruits, and seeds as sources of characters (Judd et al. 2002, p. 42).

Bauhin clearly distinguished between genus and species, and sometimes employed a binomial nomenclature.

Ray recognized distinction between monocots and dicots, while retaining distinction between herbaceous and woody plants emphasized by predecessors (Judd et al. 2002, p. 51).

Magnol divided plants into families (Judd et al. 2002, p. 47).

Tournefort , a student of Magnol, characterized generic concepts for the first time (Judd et al. 2002, p. 47).

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Berlin, B., Breedlove, D. E. & P. H. Raven (1966) Folk Taxonomies and Biological Classification. Science 154 (3746): 273-275.

Berlin, B. (1973) Folk Systematics in Relation to Biological Classification and Nomenclature. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 259-271. Note how the author has revised some of his ideas since the publication of Berlin et al. (1966).

Berlin, B (1992) Ethnobiological classification - principles of categorization of plants and animals in traditional societies. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Kelly, D. L. & T. A. Dickinson (1985). Local names for vascular plants in the John Crow Mountains, Jamaica. Economic Botany 39 (3): 346-362.

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