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Common Names Debate

Vloekname and Volksname

The letters reacting to Messrs Wareman and Mills' (V&F 83.2) call to create descriptive names for our flora are in a sense justified. But I feel that the botanical fraternity (and here I include "the elitist amateur botanists") are too archaic in their arguments for only using Latin Binomials. As an example, there can be no doubt that the common names in the West Coast Flower Guide will enhance its use and our appreciation of the flora. However, (and using the above guide as an example) two far more important issues need to be addressed.

1. Who dares play God?

Scientific names are created by taxonomists to uniquely identify a taxon. The same is not true of common names. True, somebody must invent common names, but only interesting, appropriate or long-used names will be promoted into general use. While it is the duty of a taxonomist to create scientific names, their right to create common names is debatable. With common names, as with any language use, the job here is one of lexicography: - all names in use need to be documented, their origins and patterns of use researched, and published. This should be done fairly and with due respect to local deviations and conventions. I have no problem with any author selecting one of the many names as a personal preference in any of his writings (how, for instance, can one determine which particular common name is most frequently used, or most widely used, for any particular species until we have our common name dictionary?). But for Messrs John Manning and Peter Goldblatt to presume to tell us which names we should be using ("we hope ... will become standard vernacular names" p 23) for any species is ridiculous. Are they implying that a name used by the Darling people is inferior to one used at Hopefield? Are they also implying that we should all be using the Afrikaan's vernacular name in preference to the English or Khoi names? They have stepped out of bounds! At most they can give their preferences. And when the day arrives that all 24 000 taxa of South African plants have common names in all 11 languages (and even if many of the widespread species have different names in each of several languages at the magisterial district level), our lives and botany, will be all the richer for it. We must document and create our heritage, not suppress it or force it into preconceived moulds. As a lady at the Caledon Wildflower Show told me off: "Nee, ek wil nie die Vloeknaam weet nie, dis vir die kenners. Wat word dit genoem!" Alas, to my knowledge it only had a "swear name".

2. Proper use of proper names!

Why oh why did Messrs john Manning and peter Goldblatt not treat the common names as proper nouns? Latin binomials are a special case of proper nouns, where the genus and species are treated as a single entity (thus, Protea nana), but this is not true of common names. But john and peter (p 128) decided to call Lebeckia spinescens the "sand Ganna". Now this implies that we have a proper noun (Ganna) and an adjective (sand). [Ironically, it is the only one of the three west coast Lebeckia species which does not grow only in sand, also occurring on shales]. But there are three Ganna species which grow on sand! It is a common editorial error to treat common names comprising many words as adjectival descriptions. It is also absurd! A good example is "green fly". A fly that is green in colour, or the Green Fly (not a fly at all, but an aphid). Examples abound. Take Gladiolus: john Manning and peter Goldblatt (pp 75-79) use blou, lang and rooi as adjectives for Pypie - these adjectives are ridiculous to describe a specific species. However, Blou Pypie is entirely unambiguous - this is not just a Gladiolus which is blue, but a specific species, as indicated by the use of what it unmistakably a proper noun. The name may be as inappropriate in use as the adjective, but at least we now know that the authors meant a specific species, rather than just a colour form. It is thus possible to point out that we may encounter "blue, pink, grey or yellow" Blou Pypies (c.f., page 78), but how does one explain this (translated from the Afrikaans) as "blue, pink, grey or yellow blue Pypies". And as this is an Afrikaans' proper noun, it should be the Bloupypie, Langpypie and Rooipypie, even if the index does get a bit messy.

The above debates are not just for field guides. They also apply to this esteemed journal (Veld and Flora). In both the above issues the birders are well ahead of the botanical fraternity. (Yes, they even have different "Clancy" and "Liversidge" lists of common names, for those who wish to pick sides). Perhaps Veld and Flora should look to Africa Birds & Birding for excellent editorial guidance on these matters.

Tony Rebelo

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