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FOLK TAXONOMIES

There are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. Speakers of all those languages name things in the natural world. In 1914, Henderson and Harrington published a monograph on the ethnozoology of the Tewa Indians of New Mexico. Scholars ever since have been interested in understanding the variety of ways in which people organize their knowledge of the natural world.

In the 1950s, anthropologists began systematically producing folk taxonomies—that is, hierarchical, taxonomic graphs to represent how people organize their knowledge of plants and animals. These ethnobotanical and ethnozoological taxonomies don’t necessarily mirror scientific taxonomies, but the whole point of what became known as ethno- science is to understand cultural knowledge on its own terms.

Scientific taxonomies for plants and animals recognize six primary levels of distinction (phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species) and lots of in-between levels as well (infraorder, superorder, subclass, etc., etc.), but folk taxonomies of plants and animals across the world are generally limited to five or, at most, six levels. Figure 17.7 (from D’Andrade 1995) shows part of the folk taxonomy of creatures for native speakers of English.

FIGURE 17.7.

Partial taxonomy for creatures in English.

SOURCE: R. G. D'Andrade, The Development of Cognitive Anthropology, p. 99. © 1995 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission.

 
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