Decolonization of Common Names

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the effects of colonization on language. Specifically, how renaming a species from its indigenous languages to English (or any other colonial language) perpetuates colonialism by replacing the indigenous name with the colonial name and asserting the superiority of the colonial name and language while simultaneously suppressing the indigenous name and language. Decolonization of language is imperative to reverse the damage done by colonization and colonial thinking.

Specifically I’ve been focusing on endemic species, as these are the most practical to address this issue. Widespread species will have many indigenous names in different parts of their range and prioritizing one indigenous name/language over another would itself be problematic. Whereas with endemic species, it is much easier to prioritize usage of the indigenous common names since there will be way fewer and they will all be from the same language. I suggest that indigenous names should be prioritized for endemic species over any colonial names.

This article makes the point a bit more eloquently than what I have written although it makes a point even more broadly, that not only should the indigenous common names be prioritized, but even the scientific names should be changed.

To root this whole thing to one area to make a concrete example related to iNat, I’ve been working on identifying plants in Hawai’i and have noticed many endemic plants have their top common name as an English name, others have their Hawaiian name. For example, the two most widespread endemic trees in Hawai’i, Acacia koa and Metrosideros polymorpha both have their Hawaiian name listed as an English name. But other species such as Gossypium tomentosum or Adenophorus tamariscinus have their English name prioritized and do not treat the Hawaiian name also as English. There is currently no consistency, at least across Hawaiian endemic plants.

I think a possible solution to this is to list the Hawaiian name with the language set as English and then prioritize that English name as the top common name as has already been done for many species, including the ones listed above. It is successful at prioritizing the Hawaiian name, however the problem is that the language is unambiguously not English. I think this may be the best solution that doesn’t involve some large structural changes to the iNaturalist platform in terms of name prioritization. But maybe structural changes to the way the platform prioritizes common names are what’s needed. I’m not sure.

I’m also looking to see if there is any formal guidance on iNaturalist regarding how decolonization of organism names should be pursued consistently across the platform, and if none currently exists, then one should be created.

Also, if anybody would like to read further into the links between colonialism, racism, native plants, and introduced plants, I highly recommend this paper.

Mastnak, T., Elyachar, J., & Boellstorff, T. (2014). Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space , 32 (2), 363-380.

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I don’t quite get it, indigenous names will always be in local languages, what’s the point of making English names the same while they’re used by different people of different culture? The point should be more on leaning local names other than replacing each language version with one. No matter which name is added first, you always can add another one, though I don’t know if Hawaiian people are ok with their names being called English, for me it sounds problematic, especially with both languages written with Latin letters and looking the same on paper. But if you want one of names to be first it’s better to add flags on those taxa with your request and curators will look into it.

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If I understand well, Hawaii has only one local language. In some countries, even small ones like Nicaragua, there are 5 languages, spanish (official) and 4 indigenous: Mayangna, Rama, Miskitu and creole english. So you have latin name of the species and 5 names in 5 other languages. At some point iNaturalist could be a wonderfull plateform in the sense that, additionally to a latin name, generally you have a picture, so it could be possible to build windows in any other language to access iNaturalist, no need of changing names.

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Rather than trying to repurpose the English names, which seems like it could cause problems and confusion, I would suggest we put our efforts towards trying to include as many different language names as possible. iNaturalist supports adding names in over 600 languages, but most organisms only have common names entered in a handful of languages. The purpose of having common names in iNaturalist is to make it easy to find the organism you’re looking for, not to act as an authority on what the organism is called.

While decolonizing organism names is a noble goal, I think it would be more logical and effective to target that effort towards name authorities like the International Ornithological Committee, field guide and book authors, specialized databases like WoRMS etc. iNaturalist is a tertiary source for common names. Our names are often taken from other databases, which in turn are taken from primary sources. Activism like this should ideally address the source of the problem, not the tail end. That said, if there is any usage of indigenous names within those English primary sources, I would support using them on iNaturalist as English names. I just don’t want us to put the cart before the horse.

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Just plugging the feature request that would assist dramatically in this, especially in cases like Hawai’i and Aotearoa that have a colonising language and an Indigenous language that most of the endemic species names are in, even when speaking the colonising language.

For Aotearoa we’ve done the workaround that for most species that in English you would still use the Mа̄ori name, like pūkeko and kōkako, it is also listed as an English name, as in your examples. But then there are also numerous others that the Mа̄ori name and English name are both widely used in English speech and it is not so easily assigned. Until that feature request goes through, this is going to remain an issue requiring workarounds or compromises.

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Thanks for posting this, I think there are definitely ways iNaturalist could improve on this. I also wanted to share another resource that I think you would appreciate: https://birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com/about/ Birds don’t need eponymous or honorific common names!

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Part of my point is more of the inconsistency across the platform where sometimes an indigenous name is listed as English and sometimes it is not.

Also, when English names are prioritized as the only name a user sees, that is the name they will learn. I’ve learned many names from this platform as surely ever user does. So learning local names of plants becomes much more difficult as the indigenous name is not presented by default and you have to go out of your way to get to it.

There also are the many examples of plants which do not have English names. For example this plant has a Hawaiian name, but no english name. Therefore, just the scientific name is presented. Should we not present the indigenous name in the absence of an English name? I’d argue not presenting the Hawaiian name is itself highly problematic as it devalues the indigenous name by presenting nothing instead of presenting the indigenous name.

To connect to the Hawaii example more, there is not Hawaiian translation of iNat, and English is the dominant language in the state, therefore all users will see the English name even if they want to see the Hawaiian name. Until the feature request mentioned by intyrely_eco goes though, there is no clear cut solution.

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Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been confused by an international tourist asking about a ‘blue wattled crow’ or a ‘notornis’ and had no idea what they’re asking about, because they’ve only seen 100% English guides, even when no one, English monolinguals included, would call them something other than kōkako and takahē. Giving them equal footing is actually misleading in how they are referred to and leads to a possibly unintentional prescriptivism that says a completely unused English name is as valid as the commonly used Mа̄ori name.

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I agree with people above, we should fill up all local names first and then think about English name, as you can type any name in any language and it will show up no matter of your settings having duplicating names is complicated. Maybe not having one at all and just showing a local name when there’s no name in language you choose instead of showing only Latin name, so I agree with you.

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I think you really hit the nail on the head with that. iNatualist is inherently prescriptivist in the default name as described by the policy below

The language and Place preferences in your account settings will change how common names are displayed on the site. We support one default common name globally, which can be changed by at the “Manage Names” page (taxon page, taxonomy tab) by dragging a name to the top of the list. You can also specify default names for specific places by editing the name and assigning it to a place, but please only do this when different places have conflicting names. Please be judicious when changing the default common name. Recognize that you may be displacing the name used by many other users.

Which name is chosen as this default common name is very important, as you mentioned in your post. We need to be more thoughtful about which name is chosen as the default name. Regardless of what name is chosen, some community is going to be isolated and upset that their name is not the top name. When this is overlaid on top of historical oppression of indigenous people, it’s adding salt to the wound of historical colonization when an English name is prioritized over an indigenous name. Yes it is inconvenient to us anglophone folk, but the linguistic colonialism implied by a default English common name is itself problematic.

One potential solution would be need to be done that outside of the species page, so on individual observations which are geotaged, would be to use the geotag to decide which common name to display so different names could be given to the same species in different locations although this doesn’t address the problem I was describing above with prescriptivism.

You can do it now by creating names for countries, one can be prioritized over another in e.g. Canada or UK.

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And that is normal, particularly for English. English picks up words and phrases from other languages like none other!

But I think that you may be missing out one one of the features of iNaturalist: You can prioritize a local English name for a given plant. One example that bothered me for a while was a Pacific Northwest flower, Clintonia uniflora. Previously, it was listed under “Bride’s Bonnet” for everyone speaking English. That, however, is not what it’s called in Canada. Here it’s most commonly known as “Queen’s Cup”. So as a Canadian user, it was frustrating.

That was, until I learned that names can be associated with a particular location. So it was possible to associate “Queen’s Cup” as the English name for Canada.

That feature is, I think, the solution to your issue and an answer for why you sometimes can have that: Because it is the local name used by anglophones.

I would caution that the feature isn’t really apparent nor transparent, in that although a local synonym can be applied in English, looking at the Taxonomy page you can’t see where it is used. (Either a GUI issue that could be improved, or I’m looking in totally the wrong place…) It would also help to have transparency or some kind of consensus approach for regional usage, much like what we have with observation annotations.

If a name in a first nations language is used regularly by anglophones (or other imported languages) in the area, then of course it can be double-listed in English and as the preferred synonym for. But that’s your responsibility as someone from that locale.

Even in a single province like British Columbia, we would encounter the same problem:

There are 60 different languages and dialects spoken by first nations peoples in BC. To mark any one of them as the English one, for no other purpose than “decolonization”, would be to open old wounds by privileging one above the others. Mega can-o’-worms. That’s why the English entry shouldn’t be used as simply a “default” field, nor for pushing an agenda, but rather as the intended purpose: the field for the name as colloquially used by the majority of anglophones in the area.

An example where this might be relevant is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, or Bearberry, though I know it as Kinnikinnick. “Kinnikinnick” is an indigenous word for it within parts of Canada, as it is derived from Algonquin, however if you note the language map for Algonquin, that does not include British Columbia. So if we were to choose a word to supplant the “default English” from a First Nations language, we would have British Columbians needing a different word from the rest of Canada, assuming that we wanted to selectively privilege Algonquin on the basis of “decolonization”, rather than usage.

Again, on that last one “Kinnikinnick” is not the default for Canada (yet) and I haven’t taken action yet as it’s necessary to ascertain whether that is what most people call the plant. That’s the other layer of difficulty which might impede some renaming or synonym regionalization. It’s a bit of effort to get sense of what most people, in a particular locality, call a given plant. But if you have a good sampling from first-hand knowledge, why not add the regional name?

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Absolutely, I mentioned this in the first part of this post when I outlined that any policy in regards to this would be best applied to endemic species where there are not multiple indigenous languages naming the plant. Hawaii and New Zealand may be more exceptional in this case as there are high rates of endemic species and only one indigenous language.

I’m not quite sure I understand how regional names are added or maintained. It seems to be opt-in on the user side, and not incredibly well documented. It also seems to be invisible to non-curators as to which taxa have regionalized names and which do not.

You can see all added names on the taxon page and anyone can add them, you don’t see as non-curator if a name is used for a region, yes, but it’s used no matter if you chose the region or not, so it’s not quite opt-in.

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On a given taxon’s taxonomy page there’s a link which says, “Add a Name”.

So for the Common Raccoon:

I’m not a curator and I can see which synonyms exist. However, as far as I can tell, I cannot see how they are regionally applied. That’s why I mentioned the GUI (?) issue.

I’d suggest checking out the curator guide on names:

https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/curator+guide#names

Again, I don’t think that this should be framed as “decolonization” (there’s a lot of places where that can be an issue), but rather as an issue of localization. Perhaps you’d like to collaborate on a feature request for getting a better GUI for helping users to see / input local names? As mentioned, I see a need for some improvement on that.

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I still believe that this needs to be viewed from a decolonization perspective. When having no name is prioritized over an indigenous name (see my earlier example), especially when they share the same alphabet, this is devaluing indigenous names and knowledge.

English and indigenous names are prioritized inconsistently across the platform and I’d like to see how this inconsistency can be resolved.

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Although you label your efforts “decolonization”, they are not that. So say, “When having no name is prioritized over an indigenous name” is a kind of conspiratorial thinking, rather than trying to understand the mechanisms at play and fix them. Because you’re talking about the anglo name for something and saying, “well, if I don’t know how they call it, so it does not matter”. That’s a kind of erasure for any language group: I didn’t know the Spanish word for “Dog”, I should not enter “Dog” as the Spanish word for Canis familiaris.

Every piece of data on this site is added by a human, whether one data point at a time or by importing a data set… and ultimately someone needs to create that dataset. So one needs to wait on humans to act, not create policies which privilege one language group over another.

Inputting localized names is a matter of local effort. If there isn’t an English name, it’s probably because no one editing the taxonomy knows what is locally used. Like many things on iNat, often you need to have patience & wait for someone with the correct expertise.

And it would be flatly wrong and presumptive to make the assumption that a name in a first nations language should be inserted in place of a blank in English. If it is what’s locally used in English, then that needs to be added or updated by an individual.

Let’s put this another way: Would you input a word from a first nations language in place of a Chinese name, just because you don’t know the Chinese one? Or how about using ᓇᓄᖅ on a certain species just because you don’t know the French name for it. ᓇᓄᖅ is useless to 99.99% of francophones. At least in displaying a scientific name, we have a meeting of the minds.

So if there’s a word for something, great! If there isn’t a word for something in that language, then it should not default to a different language but rather the scientific nomenclature that is (ideally) shared by all.

Make the effort to actually help by inputting regional data, rather than encouraging the adoption of policies with absurdist outcomes.

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I understand how the data are entered and maintained, it’s mostly done by volunteers and imports from various databases, and I’m thinking about requesting curator permissions so I can fix some of these things myself in terms of common names. But as I’ve already discussed, things are inconsistently applied across the site. Even within this thread there are several diverging opinions as to how English and Hawaiian names should be treated just in terms of entering them (should Hawaiian names be entered as English names or should they only be entered as the Hawaiian name?).

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Isn’t there an option on iNat to display common names from specific regions? This is why everyone should just use scientific names… everyone uses the same name and there are no cultural insensitivity issues!

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I dont understand all these political and social sensitivities. People are weird.

A very high proportion of southern African plants are in cultivation worldwide. When southern Africa joined iNaturalist the site was awash with American (Californian) and European names for our plants that are unknown on the subcontinent. However, rather than try and force our names on the rest of the world, leaving them bewildered, we sneaked in our names and added the region. We therefore see our local names, and the rest of the world happily see their familiar names that these plants are now traded as.

The English language is like a sponge. True the first thing that the colonists did was equate the plants and animals with their English versions (Robins, Thrushes, Blackbirds, etc.) but then the local names were soaked up: in Australia, India, South Africa - the local names entered the lexicon. So our South African English plant names are dominated by Khoi, Afrikaans, Zulu and other languages. There are exceptions: our trees tend to be named on carpentry characteristics related to European timber. And there are interesting nuances, like many of our mammal names are based on the Dutch names which related the animals to the European equivalent (e.g. crudely Hartebeest - Hart= deer, beest = cow, Wildebeest = wild cow - although the Gnu is also used (from Dutch gnoe, from the Khoisan (Hottentot) i-ngu or Southern Bushman ! nu: )

iNaturalist manages the Common Names exceptionally well. But if the English (or anyone, including the Hawaiians) want to have their names then let them have it. If you would like the local names, set up your preferences by language and region and enjoy the names.
If you want a crusade to get the English speakers to change their common names to more local ones, the is a noble and interesting cause. But please dont force it on them. You will need to advocate, advertise and get the names into common usage. And then iNaturalist can follow suite …

Regarding the display of names by regional preferences on iNaturalist, I dont see why that is not an option and transparent, although I would prefer it if not everyone could just go and change the settings - editing them is best left to the curators.

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