Hominin/Hominid.

I’m editing an anthropological text on early forms of humanity and am thus having my nose rubbed in a change I had vaguely noticed in recent years but tried to ignore: nobody talks about hominids any more, it’s all “hominins,” a word I find ugly (because it’s new to me). Wikipedia:

By convention, the adjectival term “hominin” (or nominalized “hominins”) refers to the tribe Hominini, while the members of the Hominina subtribe (and thus all archaic human species) are referred to as “hominan” (“hominans”). This follows the proposal by Mann and Weiss (1996), which presents tribe Hominini as including both Pan and Homo, placed in separate subtribes. The genus Pan is referred to subtribe Panina, and genus Homo is included in the subtribe Hominina (see above). However, there is an alternative convention which uses “hominin” to exclude members of Panina, i.e. either just for Homo or for both human and australopithecine species. This alternative convention is referenced in e.g. Coyne (2009) and in Dunbar (2014). Potts (2010) in addition uses Hominini in a different sense, as excluding Pan, and uses “hominins” for this, while a separate tribe (rather than subtribe) for chimpanzees is introduced, under the name Panini. In this recent convention, contra Gray, the term hominin is applied to all species of genus Homo, as well as to species of the ancestral genera Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and others that arose after the split from the line that led to chimpanzees (see cladogram below); that is, they distinguish fossil members on the human side of the split, as hominins, from those on the chimpanzee side, as not hominins.

This is all very confusing: the alternative conventions, the inconsistent italics (“subtribe Hominina” and “subtribe Panina” but “the Hominina subtribe” and “members of Panina“), the very name Panini — to me, these are panini). But the main question I have is, why the change in terminology? Obviously classifications are changing all the time with the discovery of new varieties of early humans and what used to be called “missing links,” but what was so bad about “hominid” that it had to be remade, causing such a mess?

Comments

  1. because the -id suffix is used strictly for the members of a taxonomic family, and the family Hominidae used to be defined in the classic pinnacle-of-creation sense, as humans but not apes. Alas, the DNA proved that we are together with the chimps and gorillas at this “pinnacle” (it is the orangutans who are the odd one out). So it has become impossible to keep saying “hominids” without including apes. How would we call, more narrowly, ourselves, Neanderthals, Denisovans and their kin, then? Hence the new label of hominins.

  2. Homininae and Hominini seem liable to confusion. Wiki pronunciation table says -inae /ˈaɪni/ and -ini /ˈaɪnaɪ/ but also “Pronunciations given are the most Anglicized. More Latinate pronunciations are also common”; there are still some scientists who don’t always speak English.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    The inconsistent italics are plain wrong; I’ll fix them.

    Nomenclature and taxonomy are two different things. Nomenclature:

    Superfamily Hominoidea : hominoid
    Family Hominidae : hominid
    Subfamily Homininae : hominine
    Tribe Hominini : hominin
    Subtribe Hominina : …subtribes are so rarely used elsewhere that there’s no established English convention

    On the taxonomic side, there are two basic issues:

    1) The ranks are not defined. Hominidae is whichever family contains the genus Homo. That’s the entire definition. “Family” isn’t defined anywhere. Taxonomists can, and do, lump and split as they please.
    2) Up to the 1980s or so, taxonomic groupings often reflected “grades”: humans are so special that they’re given their own group (in this case Hominidae) and put beside a group that contains the other apes (Pongidae), even though this other group is paraphyletic. This practice has, fortunately, fallen out of fashion. Nowadays, as in historical linguistics, all taxa apart from species are conceptualized as monophyletic, containing an ancestor and all its descendants forever. Given 1), however, there are many, many possible ways of implementing this change. And indeed, several different ones have been used in published sources.

    And so, the largest clade that contains us but not the chimps is called Hominidae in old sources, but Hominina or Hominini in the youngest ones, and maybe Homininae in some others.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Fixed it, and several other minor issues.

  5. Thanks, for the explanation and the fixes!

  6. SFReader says:

    How would we call, more narrowly, ourselves, Neanderthals, Denisovans and their kin, then?

    Homo sapiens

  7. I had noticed this change as well, and I didn’t think much of it. It seemed an unnecessary alteration, since there was never anything wrong with the family Hominidae. Only Pongidae was paraphyletic and thus in need of correction.

  8. Savalonôs says:

    Very disappointed that the link did not go to images of a Sanskrit grammarian.

  9. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Homo sapiens
    there is evidence, albeit not as conclusive as it seems at first, of limited reproductive isolation between these groups, so it may be totally appropriate to call them species. In any case the paleontologists rarely have a way to test reproductive isolation between what they call species

  10. Narmitaj says:

    @hat – “it’s all “hominins,” a word I find ugly (because it’s new to me).” –

    Maybe it is also because hominin sounds irritatingly close to but not quite like homonym (ho ho).

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Hominids, hominins and hominans are exact homonyms. They need all these homonyms because hominids aren’t hominins, only near-hominins.

    (I woke up with a joke, but Narmitaj came first.)

  12. SFReader says:

    Homophobia – fear of hominins

  13. David Marjanović says:

    there was never anything wrong with the family Hominidae. Only Pongidae was paraphyletic and thus in need of correction.

    But that would leave you with Hominidae, Panidae, Gorillidae and Pongidae, which would – given rank-based nomenclature – sort of imply that these are all as subjectively different from each other as Canidae, Ursidae and Mustelidae, when in fact they’re closer in age to Canini (…that’s dogs as opposed to foxes).

    Also, again given rank-based nomenclature, it would leave you without a means of naming, say, the African apes/humans (the sister-group of Pongidae), because inserting a rank between family and superfamily would be rather awkward. Or you could restrict Hominoidea to that, and extend the other problem I just mentioned.

    Rank-independent phylogenetic nomenclature was only invented in 1990, and is still spreading from field to field.

  14. Very disappointed that the link did not go to images of a Sanskrit grammarian.

    Good point; forty years ago it would have. I’ve traded Indic languages for Italian bread.

  15. With paradigm shifts, members of the new school like to mess up the terminology, carving their own futures and making it impossible for the old school to talk about anything.

  16. I confess I had some such dark suspicion about this.

  17. But where do the Houyhnhnms belong?

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    Do today’s Young People learn a mnemonic for taxonomy that’s longer than Kings Play Chess On Fancy Glass Stools? Some of the wikipedia discussion suggests that there are now as many as three intermediate levels of specification between Fancy and Glass (and several more in between On and Fancy).

  19. January First-of-May says:

    The version I recall having learned (in retrospect, possibly not at school) was that there are seven main levels (I don’t recall a full list of their names offhand in either Russian or English), each of which can be augmented with super- (Russian: над-) or sub- (Russian: под-) as needed, for a theoretical total of 21 levels (or maybe 20, because I’m not sure if “super-kingdom” – or, in Russian, надцарство – was possible).
    And I think I’ve read somewhere that there’s a few more levels below subspecies, but they rarely come up, and IIRC have at some point been officially declared unofficial.

    It appears that the modern clade-based classification requires even more fine-grained division than that (especially at the lower end), and the previous 20 or 21 levels had now been expanded into 40 or more (some without accepted names).

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    It looks like the biggest newfangled interloper (in English) is “tribe,” just because it’s not a modified-by-prefix name of one of the Traditional Seven but fits below family (and also below “subfamily” and even “infrafamily”) but above genus. But maybe there isn’t such a thing as a supergenus, despite the scientific excellence of the legendary Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius?

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Do today’s Young People learn a mnemonic for taxonomy that’s longer than Kings Play Chess On Fancy Glass Stools?

    We don’t learn it at all anymore. Only specialists need it, and then (in increasingly many fields) only to understand the mindset of older literature.

    as many as three intermediate levels

    Some people really went wild with the prefixes in the 1990s, even stacking them on top of each other.

    “super-kingdom”

    Has been used for such things as Opisthokonta (animals, fungi, and their closest relatives).

    a few more levels below subspecies, but they rarely come up, and IIRC have at some point been officially declared unofficial.

    Botanists still use “varieties” and then some. It’s the zoologists that have officially declared everything below subspecies rank null and void, to the extent that names first proposed at such ranks can’t have priority over anything.

    the previous 20 or 21 levels had now been expanded into 40 or more

    That’s not “now”, that’s 1990s stuff. More and more subdisciplines are becoming comfortable with rankless names. After all, ranks never caught on in historical linguistics…

    It looks like the biggest newfangled interloper (in English) is “tribe,”

    That’s actually a pretty old one, over a century old, and very often used in botany (where the families are huge). Also old and mostly forgotten is “cohort”, and entirely forgotten is “legion”… whoops, it turns out I had underestimated the big book of 1997.

    there isn’t such a thing as a supergenus

    Indeed not, at least not in zoology, where the ranks in the genus group and the species group are spelled out in the Code (while in the family group and above you can do as you please).

  22. John Cowan says:

    After all, ranks never caught on in historical linguistics

    True that. But linguistics has never had anything like rank suffixes either, just the regular English adjective-formers like -an, -oid, -ic, a few prefixes like macro-, and dvandva compounds like Pama-Nyungan.

  23. Savalonôs says:

    I move that zoologists simply make an exception to their usual rank-naming conventions and define “hominid” as whatever taxon contains only Homo and their closer extinct relatives, in order to avoid confusing the public and making schoolchildren cry. So-called hominidae family to be renamed megasimia.

  24. Savalonôs says:

    It’s true that there are no accepted taxonomic ranks in linguistics, but I have thought the linguist’s tendency to requisition -ic as a suffix meaning “language family”. This contrasts with other, usually older, instances of -ic simply referring to a language, as with Arabic and Amharic. It also contrasts with alternative suffixes used for language families, e.g. not Siouic, Iroquoiic, and Algonquic but Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonquian (the latter seeming to cause no end of confusion with simple Algonquin). Also someone seems to have tired of disputes over how to define Bodic and simply proposed a Bodish grouping instead.

    It’s a bit odd how much linguists enjoy creating new words – you never see doctors off creating new diseases.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Linguists creating new languages is not that common, though. 🙂

  26. Rodger C says:

    So-called hominidae family to be renamed megasimia.

    Megapitheci. Or magnisimia.

  27. There are a few patterns apparent in the use of adjectival suffixes in linguistics: Africanists seem to enjoy -oid (be it language-rooted like “Oromoid”, “Igboid” or family-rooted like “Bantoid”), Austronesian has plenty of plain -ian coinciding with geography.

    There’s even the IMO quite fun undercurrent where a widespread word root is picked to represent a family; “Na-Dené” is the high profile major family example, but this is encounterable also in places like South Slavic (“Shtokavian” / “Kajkavian” / “Chakavian”) & Gallo-Romance dialectology (“langues d’oïl” / “langues d’oc”), early Indo-European classifications (“Gott” / “Dieu” / “Bog” division) or macrofamily hypotheses (“Mitian”).

    I have wondered at times what would make good similar markers for other establisched larger families: e.g. for Indo-European and its notably stable numeral system, maybe something like “Dwatrian”; for the steppe-based IE-minus-Anatolian maybe “Cyclic”. For Uralic the “living fish under the water” could provide a “Kalaic” or “Alvedian”. And so on forth…

  28. SFReader says:

    Why they don’t use it for other languages?

    Indo-Europoid family, Mongoloid languages, Dene-Caucasoid macrofamily…

  29. John Kelly says:

    This has been a most helpful discussion — thanks, especially, to David Marjanović (and others).

    Savalonôs says:
    “It’s a bit odd how much linguists enjoy creating new words – you never see doctors off creating new diseases.”

    Actually, the most standard classification system, ICD, does change over time. The mental health component is especially contested, as is the parallel US-based “DSM” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diagnostic_and_Statistical_Manual_of_Mental_Disorders

  30. David Marjanović says:

    “Dwatrian”

    That would just remind people of the similarity to Austronesian…

  31. John Cowan says:

    a widespread word root is picked to represent a family

    Penutian, though generally pronounced to rhyme with distribution as if it were of Latin origin (see the third palatalization in Latinate English words), is another example: [pen] ‘two’ in Wintuan, Maiduan, and Yokutsan; [uti] ‘two’ in Miwok-Costanoan.

    Mongoloid languages

    That would suggest the languages of people with Down’s syndrome.

  32. Savalonôs says:

    Megapitheci. Or magnisimia.

    d’oh! You never go full R. A. Dart.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Pama-Nyungan is another one of those.

  34. Savalonôs says:

    Not to be obstreperous, but … well, I guess I’ll just go ahead and be obstreperous … of course linguists and doctors are always devising new classifications and descriptions of languages and diseases. But linguists also create new words which they – if no one else – proceed to use as part of the lexicon. I’m not aware of anything that’s been written about the linguist’s highly productive -ive suffix, used to name grammatical categories. It seems to typically require a latinate root, unlike -ic which can potentially fit onto whatever’s at hand (I coined the terms Thoic and Yayic for two Zhuang-Tai branches).

    Certain linguists do from time to time go to the trouble of coining entire languages. I wonder if there are epidemiologists who spend their spare time working out the details of exciting fictional diseases.

    “Na-Dené” is the high profile major family example

    “Bantu”, another classic.

  35. …the linguist’s highly productive -ive suffix

    The term dechticaetiative was created, I suspect, just to be obnoxious. It mercifully did not catch on.

    (It refers to a certain kind of marking of recipients vs. themes of transitive verbs.)

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