By any other name...
African Birdlife|November/December 2021
Bird names are a perennial hot topic. Why do they keep changing? Who decides, and how? And no, it’s not a ruse by the authors of bird books so that they can keep on producing ‘updated’ editions!
ANDREW DE BLOCQ

Although South Africa is a multilingual country, the focus of this article is on English common names. The good thing about Afrikaan's bird names – apart from the fact that many are so wonderfully descriptive – is that because Afrikaans is spoken only in this pocket of Africa the names are not subject to the same changes as English names. However, this can be limiting as taxonomic progress is made but not reflected in the names.

As far as other local languages are concerned, the first consolidated list of Zulu bird names was produced as recently as 2020. New names had to be created to describe many of the species and, like many Zulu bird names already in existence, they are often poetic in their mimicry of some sound or behavior relevant to the species. A field guide for Zulu speakers is now in development. This is a monumental step in a South African context: for the first time, Zulu birders have words in their mother tongue to use for all the country’s birds. Sadly, this recent development highlights the fact that other African languages are still lagging in terms of having accessible basic resources for birding.

But back to scientific names and English common names, both of which have been subject to varying degrees of fluidity over the past century and for different reasons. Of the two, scientific names are considerably more static and the instances in which any alteration may be considered are limited. Overwhelmingly, a new scientific name arises from a change in our understanding of taxonomy, which has developed rapidly over the past three decades as a result of advances in genetic analysis.

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