When Orientalism met Taxonomy.

At the blog Catching Flies, L. Shyamal has a very interesting post about the impact of orientalism on the study of the fauna and flora of India. There are all sorts of nice linguistic bits (as well as great images); a sampling:

The Dutch East India Company project of Hendrik van Rheede is exceptional in the nature of collaboration in knowledge production that put Indian traditional knowledge on record and gave local knowledge its due. Rheede came from an enlightened upper class background and it is interesting to see how he viewed other cultures. Rheede worked at a time when Linnaeus’ ideas of binomial nomenclature were still in development. The only labels that he could use were what he could find from local usage. He was aware of local variations both regional and linguistic and recorded them quite carefully. He had copperplate engravings made for printing the illustrations and all of them include local names in their original scripts in the corner.

Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (Greek and Latin) as ‘barbarous’. He is said to have had reservations about using local names except in the Latinized form as species epithets and only rarely for generic names. Joseph Needham accused Linnaeus of being prejudiced about Chinese knowledge although some later workers have pointed out there is little evidence for this claim.(Cook, 2009) It has been pointed out that Linnaeus used nearly 258 names from Malayalam based on Rheede’s work, the Hortus Malabaricus. (See Jain and Singh 2014 for a list)

We have already seen how Brian Hodgson was a big fan of local names in his descriptions as well as binomials. He was however forced by peer-pressure to shift to the use of Greek and Latin roots.

…The French entomologists Amyot and Serville are quite careful in their use of Sanskrit for insects from India. Redescribing a common northeast Indian bug which they called Lohita, they are careful in indicate the etymology and the association, even transcribing the original Sanskrit.

Thanks, Dinesh!


  1. Interesting, thanks. Archive.org has a couple of colonial botanical guides, including Plants of the Coromandel.

  2. Van Rheede was extraordinary (for his principled incorruptibility as well as his scientific studies), but not unique: he had a contemporary, Georg Eberhard Rumphius, who similarly drew on traditional botanical knowledge in Ambon in assembling his Herbarium Amboinense. He recorded Ambonese, Malay and Chinese names of plants, and seems to have incorporated Malay words in particular into his plant nomenclature; but apparently his classification methods were inadequate and of no use to Linneaus. As a work of ethnobotany, however, the Herbarium Amboinense is regarded by some as a near-forgotten masterpiece.

    The travails Rumphius went through to get his work published are astonishing – his Wikipedia entry gives the bares bones of the story.

  3. Rumphius! I’m a fan just based on his name.

  4. Originally Rumpf.

  5. There’s an “I’d like to change my name” joke in there somewhere.

  6. “Spell My Name With an S”. There’s a lot of textual corruption in that copy, alas; for ‘5’ in various places read ‘S’.

  7. “Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (Greek and Latin) as ‘barbarous’. ”

    Thank God this attitude is dead, dead, dead in botany. The closest anyone comes to this is slapping a Greekish or Latinish suffix onto the genus r wrong on the species name. And in paleontology it is dust- look at the manes of all these new dinosaurs coming out of China.

  8. Trond Engen says:
  9. “Spell My Name With an S”

    I was curious if Zebatinsky actually occurred in nature, so I googled it and got only Russian translations of the story.

  10. The story says that the name is of Polish origin, not Russian, though Marshall Z’s opposite number has a Russian(ized) name. But googling in Latin script doesn’t find anything in the way of real people’s real names either.


  11. There’s an “I’d like to change my name” joke in there somewhere

    I’m shocked, shocked, that a respectable, well-brought-up blog like this one would stoop to such undergraduate humour. This is probably the sort of thing that the poor man fled to the Indies to escape.

    I have nothing to corroborate the “probably” in the previous sentence, so offer instead this interview with E M Beekman, translator and annotator of the Herbarium Amboinense.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    It’s not only in the so-called Latin names that Indian words have become current. Many bird names in English ultimately have Indian roots. Just off the top of my head, names like ‘shama’ (a kind of flycatcher), ‘cochoa’ (a kind of thrush), ‘baza’ (a kind of hawk), ‘shikra’ (a kind of hawk), and ‘besra’ (a kind of hawk) are ultimately from the subcontinent. Even ‘Brahminy kite’ comes out of the Indian experience.

    Of course many Latin names also contain Indian elements, such as Falco jugger, Falco cherrug, and many more. (Actually, not sure of cherrug.)

    Colonial-era ornithology was quite international, with connections between British working in India and southeast Asia, and further afield to Europeans working in east Asia. For instance, terms like ‘shama’ were quite effortlessly taken up by Western ornithologists working in China.

  13. My favorite of the Latin names we owe to Rumphius is that of the genus Ailanthus, whose source is in one of the languages of Ambon recorded by Rumphius in his Herbarium Amboinense, in the middle of the page here. (The genus includes the tree of heaven Ailanthus altissima, now a weed tree in North America, and also A. triphysa, the source of the aromatic resin called halmaddi or mattipal used as a binder in traditional Indian incense—formerly a characteristic note in Nag Champa incense before India banned production to protect the species.) Rumphius records the Ambonese form as aylanto and notes the following about its meaning: Coeli arbor, acsi dicere vellent, altitudine sua coelum hanc lacessere “The tree of heaven, as if to say that it assails the heavens with its height”. In the present day, the Malayo-Polynesian languages of the south coast of Seram across Piru Bay from Ambon have terms like ai lanit, literally “sky tree”, for the tall tree Ailanthus integrifolia of tropical Asia and New Guinea. The ai “tree” is from a Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *kahiw and is akin to Malay kayu (also seen in English cajeput). The lanit “sky” is akin to Malay langit “sky”, from Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *laŋit, of Proto-Austronesian origin. It seems René Louiche Desfontaines used the term transmitted by Rumphius as his basis in 1786 when established the name of the genus Ailanthus—the spelling of which was perhaps influenced by Greek ἄνθος ?

  14. Coeli arbor, acsi dicere vellent, altitudine sua coelum hanc lacessere “The tree of heaven, as if to say that it assails the heavens with its height”.

    Interesting that the Dutch is “Aylanto, dat is hemel-boom, als of ze hem beschuldigen wilden, dat by met zyn hoogte den hemel tergde”; de hemel tergen is an idiom in Dutch meaning (according to K. ten Bruggencate’s Engels Woordenboek) “fly in the face of Providence,” while tergen means ‘provoke, badger; aggravate, torment.’ (When Claudius says to Hamlet “Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,” Dutch renders it “Bah, ‘t is de hemel tergen.”) So I would translate “as if to say that it provokes [or “annoys”] the heavens with its height.”

  15. Also interesting that “tree” is not in the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database.

  16. Another curiosity is the Jesuits’ creation of Latin names for Chinese philosophers. Confucius (Kǒngfūzǐ) and Mencius (Mèngzǐ) are the only ones now in use, but I think Laucius/Laocius (Lǎozǐ), Micius/Mocius (Mòzǐ) and Licius (Lǐzǐ) had some currency in the past. And a Google Books search revealed some early 20th-century writers suggesting new ones like Sancius (Zhuāngzǐ) and Vancius (Huángzǐ).

    It also turned up a piece in The Chinese Students’ Monthly from 1921, which argues that Westerners will never be able to take Chinese names seriously: “To call a philosopher ‘Mo Tzu’ is to subtract half the weight from his opinions. […] Who will believe that Li Po was as good a poet as Anacreon, or that Kuei-fei was more baleful than Cleopatra?” It goes on to suggest that if not Latin, then the Japanese forms should be used instead!

  17. Also from that piece (link): “The Jesuits had a better way with their Laocius, Confucius, Mencius, Micius, Licius — all of them names perfectly acceptable to a generation the learned part of which had swallowed ‘Schenckius’ and ‘Pfungstius.'”

  18. It goes on to suggest that if not Latin, then the Japanese forms should be used instead!

    Maybe this is why Pound liked to call Li Po “Rihaku.”

  19. Here is Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *kahiw in Blust’s online dictionary, under Proto-Austronesian *kaSiw, “tree, wood”. The Proto-Malayo-Polynesian reconstruction is in Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database on this page, which gives the Formosan cognates, many of which are glossed as “tree”.

    I wonder if the ailanto of Ambon (A. integrifolia) stinks to high heaven, like its cousin A. altissima growing out of every crack the asphalt in North American parking lots.

  20. Poking about in the various proto-languages, it appears to be subsumed under item 79, glossed as ‘stick/wood’.

  21. From Roma Eterna, the story of the second expedition from the Roman Empire to the New World (the first had ended in a disastrous failure):

    Olaus came forward until he was disturbingly close and said, in bad but comprehensible Latin, “You are the general? What is your name? Your rank?”

    “Titus Livius Drusus is my name, son of the senator Lucius Livius Drusus. I hold the appointment of legionary legate by the hand of Saturninus Augustus.”

    The Norseman made a low rumbling sound, a kind of bland growl, as though to indicate that he had heard, but was not impressed. “I am Olaus the Dane, who has become king of this land.” Indicating the man on his left, a scowling, hawk-nosed individual dressed nearly as richly as he was himself, the Norseman said, “He is Na Poot Uuc, the priest of the god Chac-Mool. This other is Hunac Ceel Cauich, he who is master of the holy fire.”

    Drusus acknowledged them with nods. Na Poot Uuc, he thought. Hunac Ceel Cauich. The god Chac-Mool. These are not names. These are mere noises.

    If Olaus (i.e. Olav) had spoken better Latin, he probably would have called the rain-god Jupiter Chacmolius.

  22. “Poking about in the various proto-languages, it appears to be subsumed under item 79, glossed as ‘stick/wood’.”

    Salishan has an exactly same-shaped semantic domain. The Lushootseed form “xpay?ac” – ‘red cedar’ is a member of that family. (-ac is a lexical affix.)

    Come to think of it, it looks like something similar is happening in Irish, English and French – Irish ‘bile”, French “billet” and English “bill”, and “billet for that matter.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: stick, wood, tree

    Same semantic equivalence in the Tsimshianic languages, with qan. The red cedar is s(m)-qan, literally ‘real, ideal, typical wood/tree’. The basic word seems to apply especially with trees with straight trunks, like most conifers. It can also be used for ‘totem pole’ if there is no ambiguity (there is also a specific word).

  24. According to this, apparently an excerpt from a textbook, the name Na Poot Uuc is glossed as “mother” followed by the maternal family name Poot and the paternal family name Uuc; it is not attributed to anyone in particular.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    But I am not sure where French billet fits in. Perhaps you are thinking of le billot, a largish, thick piece of wood made by cutting twice across a tree trunk. The word is derived from la bille (de bois), a longer piece of a tree trunk.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Spell My Name with an “S” on TV Tropes.

    There’s an “I’d like to change my name” joke in there somewhere.

    🙂 Rumpf means “trunk”, “torso” almost, not “rump”. Certainly not flattering, because it implies that important parts are missing, but not quite that bad either.

    Ailanthus—the spelling of which was perhaps influenced by Greek ἄνθος ?

    Certainly; there was no way to let the opportunity for that pun slide.

  27. La Horde Listener says:

    My favorite mailbox at the end of our street was the Rumpf. Plus, that’s where I saw my first ceramic garden gnome.

  28. I just noticed that I have a Turkish dictionary by H. J. Kornrumpf.

  29. That may sound exotic, but it really only means “Corn rump.”

  30. (Sorry, David. I did it for the ages.)

  31. Note that rump and Rumpf aren’t actually cognates: the former is borrowed from Old Norse, at least semantically. Quoth the OED:

    It has been suggested (H.-J. Schüwer in Niederdeutsches Jahrbuch (1981) 104 88–106) that the original sense was ‘basket made of wickerwork’, and that on this assumption, the Germanic nouns could be < an ablaut variant of the Germanic base of Old English hrimpan (see rimple n.). However, although a sense ‘kind of basket or container (variously made of wickerwork, tree bark, or wood)’ is attested in Middle Dutch, Middle Low German, and Middle High German, this is neither the earliest nor the chief sense of the word in these languages. The suggested etymology would also require the assumption of an unattested sense ‘to weave’ for the Germanic simplex verbs cited at rimple n., as otherwise the semantic development is difficult to account for.

  32. Does a reference to Rumpole fit in here?

  33. Rumpole < Kropotkin

    In the early 1970s Mortimer was appearing for some football hooligans when James Burge, with whom he was sharing the defence, told him: “I’m really an anarchist at heart, but I don’t think even my darling old Prince Peter Kropotkin would have approved of this lot.” “And there,” Mortimer realised, “I had Rumpole.”

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