Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Berlin: "Ethnobiological Classification" (1978)

Brent Berlin considers data from two "prescientific" cultures and concludes that their category systems are based on appearance above the basic level, and based on utility below.

Since appearances "cry out to be named" (p. 11) not all plant names will reflect practical concerns:
This finding would seem to controvert the view that preliterate man names and classifies only those organisms in the environment that have some immediate functional significance for survival. More than one-third of the named plants in both Tzeltal and Aguaruna, for example, lack any cultural utility, and these are not pestiferous plants that must be avoided due to poisonous properties or the like. (p. 11)
A couple of times in the paper (e.g., p. 20), he raises the issue of simple versus compound names for categories. He seems to think that the basic level should, normally and on average, be the lowest level that has simple names (tree, pine, etc.), but he doesn't discuss the topic specifically and in detail, perhaps he didn't have enough quantitative data for a meaningful claim.

His conclusion is that
folk biological classification is based on a recognition of natural discontinuities in the biological world that are considered to be similar or different because of gross, readily perceivable characteristics of form and behavior. (p. 24)

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