health & science

Te reo in taxonomy

Scientific names of flora, fauna and fungi are based on a system started in the 1750s using Latin. Indigenous languages have crept into this system, but what’s the best way to go about incorporating te reo Māori or ta re Moriori?

In 1966, a genus of a dark-coloured native cockroach that uses odour as a defence strategy was described as Maoriblatta, a name based on the cockroaches’ common name "Māori-bug”. 

This racial slur of a common name, which found its way into a 270-year-old naming system, is a stark example of incorporating te reo into scientific names in the worst way imaginable.

The Linnaean system of naming species was introduced in the 1750s and has become a universal code for scientifically naming species to avoid the confusion of having several names for the same thing depending on where in the world you come from. In the Linnaean system, names are in two parts, consisting of a genus first and then an epithet. Tyrannosaurus rex is one well-known example, as is Homo sapiens. In this two-name system, the epithet needs to be unique to the genus.

With new species constantly being named, selecting an epithet can be tricky business. Sometimes it describes a trait of the species, or the location where it is from, or a person involved with it. 

Unitec associate professor Peter de Lange, one of the authors of an article looking at the use of te reo in taxonomy in a special Mātauranga Māori issue of the New Zealand Journal of Ecology, explained why Carl Linnaeus chose Latin as the language for scientific names.

“He said, ‘Look, we're going to use Latin, because Latin is the language of the academics and the scholars, and it's a dead language. So there's no potential argument about why did you pick Swedish? Why can't we use French?’.” 

While Latin has remained king, other indigenous languages have crept in. The review conducted by de Lange and Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research’s Dr Andrew Veale found 1288 examples of te reo and 19 examples of ta re Moriori, with examples dating back to the 1850s. Certain taxonomists were prolific, and a large number of spiders and snails bear te reo names.

De Lange thinks there’s been four stages in the use of te reo in taxonomy. An initial rejection of using it then shifted to using te reo with limited understanding or nuance. Many species have Aotearoa in their name, a place name, or the word Māori. There’s even a genus of extinct reptile called Taniwhasaurus

Random usage moved on to more considered usage and finally, de Lange thinks it’s reached a stage where taxonomists realise they should be consulting iwi. As well as being good manners, consultation can ensure words are used correctly, and greater meaning can be given to names. 

The extinct Taniwhasaurus oweni is an example of blending a te reo with a Latin suffix. Image: Public Domain

The article looks how te reo has been used in naming to date, and details case studies of how it's been incorporated. In some ways it's a how-to guide on looking at how to handle technical aspects such as macrons, as well as a primer to encourage scientists on how to engage with iwi when naming a species. Veale said the target audience for the article is taxonomists. 

As far as he knows, it's the first time an historical review of indigenous language in taxonomy has been done.

"But possibly the far more interesting, important stuff is the case studies of taxonomists talking about how they have actually done this process."

This is covered in case studies in the article. Veale hopes this encourages taxonomists to work together with iwi.

"I think that it provides some guidance, because people don't necessarily know what to do and what is right and wrong."

The oopsies, getting it right, and dealing with the fiddly bits

Making assumptions without asking locals can unwittingly lead to insult. In Northland, a species was given the name Coprosma waima as it was found in what had been referred to by the New Zealand Forest Service as the Waima Forest. The traditional ownership of the area is complicated and the actual spot where the plant was found is not related to iwi from Waimā, but to other iwi who felt slighted by the name.

A case study of getting it right looks at a plant thought to have survived the Taupō Pumice Eruption in 200 AD. Botanists consulted with the Ngāti Rangi Trust Board after discovering a species of cress on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. The name arrived at was panatohea. It was a combination of two words, ‘panapana’, a common name for this type of cress, and ‘tītōhea’ which is the description of the land above the bush line on Mt Ruapehu. For Whanganui tribes, tītōhea means a sacred area, usually desert or mountainous, where special species live. The name Cardamine panatohea was given in the hope people would treat the species with care.

Not all situations are straightforward when it comes to blending the rules of a naming system with the rules of language. A useful convention of the Linnaean system is using a suffix such as 'ensis' to indicate if something is a place name. For some, adding on a suffix is seen as bastardising a language. The article argues using the suffix helps people understand more about the species from the name and avoids confusion. The use of macrons is another fiddly bit for scientific names; usually their use is frowned upon and there's no guarantee computer systems won't strip them out. The article suggests one option is to use double vowels to indicate a longer sound.

"The message that we have is that there are no hard and fast rules about a lot of these technical issues, but you should discuss the various technical issues which we identify with the iwi or hapū that is relevant to that particular species and then together come up with an answer."

Talk with the locals

Kamera Raharaha-Nehemia lives north of Whangarei. She's a co-author of the article, speaks te reo, and is a keen contributor to iNaturalista website used by scientists, citizen scientists and nature enthusiasts. 

She explains her ideal situation when it comes to working with scientists on plant names.

"They would have established a relationship with somebody Māori in the area where the plant is. A relationship that's mutually respectful so they can talk with this person - not consult - ask them for their opinion, and make suggestions."

She thinks that person would then consult with the wider community to work on suggestions and a consensus. She's worked with de Lange on names before and given him a few te reo options. 

"I explained each option ... not just a translation because Māori is a very poetical language and there's lots of layers in it."

She thinks scientists should build links to people who have traditional understanding, but also have a passion and a love for the land and oceans. 

"Then it's not an academic thing, it's a personal thing. You understand the bush, you're not just sitting in an office."

Decolonising names one spider at a time

Lincoln University Wikipedian-in-residence Mike Dickison said reading the article has changed his mind on naming. Previously he said his preference was for all names to be in Latin. The article made it clear to him words from local languages have been used for almost 200 years, so are a tradition themselves. 

One scientist, Ray Forster, gave more than 100 spiders te reo names during his career. 

"This is the first time that anyone's gone through and actually pointed out that he gave 35 genera and 106 species te reo names. He was just busy beavering away, methodically trying to reverse hundreds of years of Latin colonialism and good on him."

In past times, Dickison said species were sent overseas and named by scientists in England and Germany. 

"It's smashing colonialism, that's what we're doing. Smashing colonialism in tiny animal names."

We value fearless, independent journalism. We hope you do too.

Newsroom has repeatedly broken big, important national news stories and established a platform for quality journalism on issues ranging from climate change, sexual harassment and bullying through to science, foreign affairs, women’s sports and politics.

But we need your support to continue, whether it is great, small, ongoing or a one-off donation. If you believe in high quality journalism being available for all please click to become a Newsroom supporter.

Become a Supporter

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners