How to collect and cite popular names?

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Many botanists, agronomists and travellers have collected popular names. Unortunately, they often had no linguistic background, and made many errors. This texts intends to give some practical rules based on many examples. When reproducing a written source, a name should of course be reproduced as it was printed (translitterated if relevant), and followed in square brackets by the canonical form and any appropriate commentary.

Name form

The canonical form should be favoured; this is the form usually recorded in dictionaries. Hopefully there is at least one dictionary, and good enough.

In principle, the name is retained at the singular and nominative form. If only the plural form is used, this must be indicated. If the language has a plural form, it can be ignored if it is formed in a regular way. If not, it should be mentioned, above all when it has consequences on the alphabetic order. For languages with declensions, it may be useful to mention the accusative or genitive forms, if such forms cannot be derived simply from the nominative.

Examples :

  • Rumanian: sg. non articulated vînătă or vânătă, aubergine ; sg. articulated vînăta or vânăta ; pl. non articulated vinete ; pl. articulated vinetele.
  • Rumanian: sg. non articulated pătlăgea or pătlăgică, aubergine or tomato ; sg. articulated pătlăgeaua or pătlăgica ; pl. non articulated pătlăgele ; pl. articulated pătlăgelele.
  • Rumanian: sg. non articulated varză, chou ; sg. articulated varza ; pl. non articulated verze ; pl. articulated verzele.


Bantu languages distinguish nominal classes, which serve to form the plural, but also (for plants) to distinguish the plant and its product. Such names are included in a class by adding different prefixes to the base name, which is quite embarrassing for the lexicographer, because names are scattered throughout the dictionary.

Example :

  • Swahili : aubergine (plant) sg. mbiringani, pl. mibiringani ; aubergine (fruit) sg. biringani, pl. mabiringani.


A name should be cited without the article. It is useless to prefix al- in front of Arabic names. Be careful that in languages with a postponed article, titles usually give the name in its definite form, with the article. So, names have to be checked with a grammar and a good dictionary (if any...).

When the article is postponed, it can modify the name, and the definite (articulated) form should also be given.

Example : Albanian lakër, (a) cabbage, lakra, the cabbage.


In Arabic, the "singular collective" form is usually retained, knowing that the singular unit is fomed by adding the termination -a.

Name transcription

It is better to be initiated to the phonological system of each language, whether it is reflected or not in the writing system. This can be found in the best and most recent grammars. For example, one should be aware of the concept of tones when dealing with names in languages with tones (Vietnamese, Chinese). Such tones are reflected in the Vietnamese script and the pinyin translitteration of Chinese, and may be written now quite easily using the Unicode standard. When dealing with Indian names, one should be aware that they have complex consonant systems (four different types of p or t in Hindi).

One must also choose a correct standard of transcription or translitteration. The old standards were different whether you were English, French, Spanish or Dutch... For example, the brief a of Hindi is pronounced somewhat like [ʌ] in English, and English people noted it as u when French people noted it as e or a. This is why we have Punjab in English and Pendjab in French.

Names should be checked in the most recent dictionaries (if they exist), which use the correct standards and give the translitterated forms of words. Unfortunately, very few languages benefit from such good dictionaries.

Some languages such as Turkish changed their writing system in time. The result is that a name in Ottoman Turkish is written in Arabic script and transcribed following the Arabic rules, whereas a name in contemporary Turkish is written according to the standard used by the Turkish people. The same name may thus appear under two different forms.

Situations of diglossia

In all languages, we find several levels of language. There is diglossia when those levels corrrespond to variants of the same language (which is the case of Arabic, Norwegian, modern Greek) or to different languages (case of creolophone countries). In a situation of diglossia, an important fraction of speakers master both language forms and shift from one to the other according to the situation. The result is that both language forms constantly influence each other and that borrowings are quite systematic. We can speak of Siamese names, that are difficult to separate.

The issue of chosing a name and its written form often becomes a hot political issue. Shall we write a creole by using the graphical conventions of the local communication language (English, French...), or shall we adopt an autonomous (and more phonetic) standard? From a pragmatic point of view, we can consider that such names do exist with a double status, creole and regional French or English, and that it is worth mentioning both. Moreover, this option facilitates searching and understanding the meaning of names. For example, it is useful to know that creole from Guadeloupe and Martinique bwa corresponds to French bois (with the same pronounciation) and so English wood, and that bwi corresponds to buis (En: box tree).

Meaning of names

The study of name meanings is part of semantics (for linguists) or popular taxonomy (for ethnobotanists). A popular taxonomy forms a more or less coherent system (at the level of a group of speakers), but there is no reason why it should copy exactly scientific taxonomy. Plants bearing a popular name should of course be carefully identified, but some names don't apply to taxa, but to ethnotaxa, or even to a class of uses.

In the case of fruit trees, many languages distinguish the name of the tree (which can be then considered as the taxon name) and the name of the fruit. This must be stressed.

examples :

  • French : cerisier m. / cerise f.
  • German : Kirshbaum m. / Kirsche f.
  • Spanish : cerezo m. / cereza f.
  • Italian : ciliegio m. / ciliegia f.

The use is different in English , as cherry is both the fruit name and the taxon name. When the tree is intended, cherry tree is used (or bush, vine if relevant).

In the (French-written) creole of la Réunion, we have :

  • Psidium guajava L. : pied de goyave (tree) / goyave (fruit)
  • Psidium littorale Raddi : pied de goyavier (tree) / goyavier (fruit)

In languages with nominal classes such as Bantu languages (see Plant names in Swahili), tree and fruit bear names belonging to different classes.

In some cases, a name form designates the plant and another the product.

examples :

  • German of Austria : Sprossenkohl (the plant Brussels sprouts, litt. 'sprouting cabbage' / Kohlsprossen (the product, 'cabbage sprouts')
  • Italian : broccolo m. sg., cavolo broccolo m. sg. (the plant brocoli) / broccoli m. pl., broccoletti m. pl. (the product, i.e. the cut sprouts)
  • French : pois m. sg. (the plant) / petits pois m. pl. the immature product of a particular cultivar group).

In this last case, we can observe a tendency of many Francophones to name the species "petit pois".