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Ethnobotany And Vernacular Names

Many indigenous communities demonstrate an intimate and reliable knowledge of their local flora and fauna and have an appreciation of the ordered complexity of the living world (Berlin et al. 1974, Hunn 1977). This is usually expressed in the folk taxonomy of these groups. However, as many ethnoscientists have observed, the correspondence between folk and scientific categories is not simple (Frake 1980).

Scientific plant names are governed by a strict set of rules, designed to prevent the same name from being used for different species and different names for the same species. However, vernacular names are not so strictly governed, and so may mean different things to different people. It is unlikely that traditional systems of classification (where they exist) and description are the same as those perceived by tribal people who may recognise many more, or fewer entities, than does western science (Lewis & Elvin 1984).

Some show a one-to-one correspondence with scientific species. However, species of great cultural significance are often split into many distinct categories by the local people while species that are less important culturally, or less distinctive in appearance, are often lumped into a single group (Berlin et al. 1973, Martin 1995). There are also added complications that these names may be based on different criteria from those used in taxonomy (such as use or spiritual status) and that linguistic and cultural barriers exist in collecting and analysing this type of information (Martin 1995).

All too often vernacular names have been collected ad hoc as part of some other activity and without any thought to the verification of the information. This has led too many names being included with herbarium specimens and in the literature with no record of the language taxonomists used, the community in which they are used or the consistency with which the name is applied.

To date only a handful of studies have touched upon the last of these areas (Jain 1989). Vernacular names however, should not be dismissed outright. Local names are extremely important in ethnobotany as they are often the only means of communicating with local people about their plants, while a linguistic study, together with a historical herbarium-based study, can help to establish the movement of plants of traditional importance.

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