Singing the Land, Signing the Land

One of the most vexed questions for anthropological linguists is that of 'natural kind'. Where does one draw the line in order to separate species within the natural world? What sorts of things should be grouped together to form classes of species, and on what criteria are the classes formed? Of course, this matter has long been discussed in biological taxonomy and has also generated much heated discussion in anthropology. In this regard, languages are not necessarily monolithic; even within a single language system there may be alternative ways of 'framing up the world'. On the question of biological species, for instance, Europeans have historically experimented with a great many ways of grouping living creatures. Even modern biology has no one 'correct' taxonomy of living things. Of course, it all boils down to the criteria that one wishes to apply. One lot of biologists focus on similarities of anatomy, function and ecological role. Another group looks strictly at the criterion of position in the evolutionary stream. Thus, the first lot recognises three species of zebra; the second, only two, since in evolutionary terms the mountain zebra is closer to the horse.

We saw in Putting nature in order how the Karam in New Guinea do not consider the cassowary (which is, after all, flightless) to be a bird, and how Europeans do not consider the bat (which has wings and does fly) to be a bird. Stephen Jay Gould in a classic and amusing essay discusses not only zebras but the evolutionary ordering of the lungfish and coelacanth, which are genealogically close to the mammals:

the lungfish must form a sister group with the sparrow or elephant, leaving the trout in its stream ... At this point, many biologists rebel, and rightly I think must classifications be based only on [evolutionary] information? A coelacanth looks like a fish, tastes like a fish, acts like a fish, and therefore – in some legitimate sense beyond hidebound tradition – *is* a fish.
S.J. Gould, Hen's teeth and horse's toes, W. W. Norton, New York, 1983, p.363

Our point here is simply to remember that it is quite wrong to imagine that there is only one correct way to divide the world into natural kinds. Conflicting models of taxonomy may simply reflect different functional expectations of the two systems.

Many aboriginal peoples around the world, and particularly in Australia, have comprehensive and sophisticated systems of natural classification. Studies have shown that these systems often compare in complexity and detail with the taxonomy of modern biology. As one would expect, with regard to the diffusion of a classification system within a language group, aboriginal peoples often have a greater knowledge than urban whites, based on both training and experience. For example, unlike most adult Westerners, the average five-year-old Tzeltal Maya in Mexico can make hundreds of botanical distinctions. Interestingly, Western and aboriginal categories sometimes correspond closely and sometimes do not. When they differ, it is usually not due to one or the other system being closer to nature but rather due to the differing logic, or principles, which guide inclusion (e.g. structure, function, medicinal or nutritional usage, evolutionary position, historical or mythic significance).

Geometric figure


How would you describe the patterns that make up this geometric figure? Concentric circles? Lines of squares radiating out from a centre? Counter-clockwise spirals? A three-dimensional cube? A dome from above? And where do the spirals end? Are the squares square? And so on and on. The answers depend on how one sees the squares relating to each other. Are the various interpretations mutually exclusive?

Taxonomic models of the natural world are built into the languages of humankind. To people of one culture the natural classifications of another may appear absurd, like something out of a story by the Argentine fantasist Jorge Luis Borges. For instance, Dyirbal, a traditional Australian language, has one natural category which includes men, kangaroos, most snakes, storms, rainbows and boomerangs and another category which includes women, fire and dangerous things. The anthropological linguist who studied the Dyirbal language, R. M. W. Dixon, realised something which would come as no surprise to a Dyirbal speaker: these categories are part of a regular, rational and principled system.

In summary, languages may utilise an exceedingly large number of quite different patterns and categories in order to portray the world of nature. These patterns may express diverse ways of seeing or of understanding; or they may simply, or complexly, reflect different interests, values or purposes. To ask which categories or patterns are more 'correct' or 'real' makes no more sense than to ask the same question of the geometric world pictured in ITEM 2.3.


M. Devin & K. Sterelny, Language and reality, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987. A recent summary of the philosophy of language from a very different point of view from that taken in this exhibit. Treats the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky and the psychologist Jerry Fodor, who suggest that there is one universal language of thought.

M. Foucault, The order of things, Random House, New York, 1970. One of the great and seminal works of the past generation which treats the question of the order and classification of nature.

L. R. Hiatt, Australian Aboriginal concepts, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978. A collection of papers which consider how Australian Aborigines 'conceptualise, classify, and organise' various aspects of their environment.

G. Lakoff, Women, fire, all dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987. This book elaborates many of the ideas presented in this exhibit.

Puna, ed. C. Goddard & A. Kalotas, Angus & Roberson, North Ryde, NSW, 1988. A detailed account of the botanical knowledge of one Aboriginal people, the Yankunytjatjara of the Everard Ranges of Central Australia.

W. V. O. Quine, Theories and things, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1981. Of general relevance to the discussion of referring categories.

W. V. O. Quine, Word and object, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1960. Has a discussion of the logical difference between subject and predicate.

R. Rorty, Philosophy and the mirror of nature, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1979. Treats some of the issues underlying this exhibit in terms of the literature of analytical philosophy.

E. Sapir, Language, Granada, London, 1921. Explores language as a cultural product.

P. F. Strawson, IndiVIduals, Methuen, London, 1959. Discusses, among other things, the philosophical significance of the distinction between subject and predicate.

B. L. Whorf, Language, thought, and reality, ed. J. B, Carroll, Wiley, New York, 1956. Though Whorf’s empirical observations are now greatly outdated, his eloquent statement of the idea of linguistic relativity remains a superb introduction.

L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford, 1958. Elaborates an account of meaning making as the intermeshing of language use and material practices.

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