When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a zookeeper.

Well, those hopes were cruelly dashed. Instead of a biologist, it seems that Universe needed another file clerk, so that's where I ended up. I mean, would it have really derailed some great cosmic plan by letting me be a zookeeper? All those childhood dreams, all those years of patient study, all for nothing because of government cutbacks and invalid parents. Why if I had a time machine, I might as well pop back and tell my younger self, "Give it up, kid. Grow up quick. Forget zookeeping. Study Xerox repair."

But this isn't about me. This is about animals. Which I know a lot about -- me being a failed zookeeper and all.

In creating an animal vocabulary, there are two temptations that are completely logical but ultimately impossible:

Why not just draw each animal?

This makes perfect sense. Since animals are tangible objects, they lend themselves easily to illustration. Some animals are distinctive enough to be recognizable no matter how poorly we draw them -- deer, elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, ostrich. Unfortunately, most are rather indistinct. Can anyone but a trained nature illustrator draw a possum that is recognizably distinct from a rat, mouse or otter? How about a dove that doesn't look like a pigeon, or a crocodile that doesn't look like a regular old lizard?

Well, if not for each animal, how about a distinct glyph for each category of animal and then we can build words using strict taxonomic hierarchy -- class, order, family, genus, species.

As it stands now, language doesn't follow biological taxonomy. In common usage, some animals are differentiated at the level of a species -- even small children know the difference between Panthera leo and Panthera tigris -- while other animal types are only distinguished at the level of a genus -- both Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus are commonly called chimpanzees. Sometimes it seems that the family is the natural unit of linguistic classification -- all deer fall into the family Cervidae and all bears fall into the family Ursidae -- but it's not unusual to find several families combined willy-nilly into a single common term. For example, five of the ten families of suborder Odontoceti -- toothed whales -- are commonly called dolphins. (Actually, it's more like 4½ families, since some dolphins are called whales, as in pilot whale and killer whale.)

When creating a new language, it's tempting to rectify this sloppiness and align common naming with biological naming. We could label every critter with, say, three glyphs -- [family][genus][species]. For example, we could easily distinguish between an otter and a rat by calling one a [weasel][otter][canadian] and the other a [mouse][rat][black]. That way, even if the pictures we use for rat and otter look pretty much the same, each would be surrounded by glyphs that highlight the differences.

The problem is, do we really need to differentiate between 39 species of dolphins in everyday conversation? In practice, we'd tend to whittle our three-glyph combo down to the one or two that tell us all we need to know. Instead of trying to remember the difference between [dolphin][Stenella][coeruleoalba] and [dolphin][Delphinus][capensis], I know I'd just go with [dolphin]. (I never said I wanted to be an aquarium guy.) We'd get tired of writing [cat][panther][lion] and [cat][panther][tiger] over and over, and just go with [lion] and [tiger]. Even biologists generally refer to P. leo and P. tigris. (This tendency has led to that abomination of dinosaur names, T. rex, in which an entire generation of children has been taught to drop the coolest animal name there is -- tyrannosaurus -- in favor of an appellation more suited to a big, friendly Irish setter -- "Here, Rex!" The second coolest animal name is, of course, killer whale. [see above])

Generally, language is a social rather than a scientific activity, so it categorizes animals according to their social rather than their scientific distinctiveness. All those different dolphins out in the ocean or up the Ganges don't really matter to us, so we lump them all together. The same goes for bats. Wild dogs are enough of a danger that we name them at the species level -- wolf, fox, coyote, jackal. Cattle are so vital to us (or at least to our linguistic ancestors) that we differentiate between cows, calves, bulls and oxen, and don't even have a word for a single representative of the bovine species as a whole.

Specific categories of animals:

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Last updated January 2004

Copyright © 2004 Matthew White