Folk Taxonomies Tell A Story Behind Conlangs

When linguist Claude Levi-Strauss traveled to South America to study the languages spoken by the indigenous populations, he discovered that their lexicons pertaining to the biosphere are about as complex and as intellectual as the lexicon used by academic biologists.

This can only be possible for any group of people who live in the same area for millenia. In order to survive, they would need to develop an intricate lexicon based on the findings of their survival. Israeli anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari encapsulated this point in his book “Sapiens” by saying:

“…Evolutionary pressures have adapted the human brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological, topographical, and social information.”

(Harari 121)

If this were to be the case of any real-world nation, then it could just as easily apply to any fictional nation living in any fictional regional biosphere. If there is to be any possibility of the conlang to be as realistic as possible, then its lexicon would have to reflect the biosphere of the speakers.

As Harari further noted, the functions that separated humans from their primate cousins are imaginative and long-term thinking. As such, hunters could plan through cooperation with other hunters to scout out the areas for game and berries. As a result, this would result in adaptation in otherwise inhospitable lands.

Since Homo Sapiens were originally evolved to be adapted to the East African plains, when a branch of them migrated to northern Siberia, they had to accomodate to the cold climate through non-biological means. They had to hunt mammoths, mastodons, and reindeer in order to wear layers of clothing made from furs and skins, and eat the protein-rich meats.

As a result, they more likely than not developed words for every part of Siberian life, though there are no recorded words from those ancient times–unless you would count cave paintings which do not translate at all to modern languages.

K. David Harrison noted this phenomenon when he said

“Folk taxonomies encapsulate generations of subtle and sophisticated observations about how the pieces of the animal and the plant kingdoms fit together, and how they relate to each other and to humans.”

(Harrison 55)

So basically, the story of folk taxonomy would have to be the story of migration and survival.

If a fictional culture lives in an area with creatures such as–for example–dragons, then the people would have needed to use their linguistic capabilities to accurately visualize the functions of the dragon in their homeland. They would have lived in that area for thousands of years and would have spent that amount of time making basic observations–from a safe distance, of course. It would include taking into account every body part, every habitat, every stage of development, and, basically, every other aspect of the dragon’s existence.

Upon studying the indigenous Tuvan people in Siberia, Harrison made the case that 80% of all animal and plant life are unknown to Western scientists. The implication of this finding is that the indigenous populations would know more about the biosphere, which completely decenters the authority of academia, since they only research what they have already discovered at hand whereas indigenous taxonomies were traditionally seen as being pseudoscience.

As such, the importance of the land cannot be overlooked when developing conlangs, since their lexicons reflect the land around the speakers. More specifically for animals such as camels, there would be a sense of utility that they would provide to the population for transportation or nutrition. As such, the dragon could be important in terms of flying to distant lands, as the Targaryens could attest–either as a war engine or to establish complex trading routes.

Of course, it does not always have to be globe-spanning dragons. If the biosphere is important enough to the people living on it, then it would be important to specify about the immediate biosphere of the people, specifically the one that provides them with food, shelter, and clothing. When Anthropologist Louis C. Faron spent weeks studying the indigenous Mapuche of Chile, he feasted with a family and made observations about the cuisine. And he observed the crop rotations they did with planting certain crops.

These details reveal the types of plants and animals that thrive in the biosphere within close proximity to the Mapuche. Although he does not detail most of the Mapuche names of these dishes and crops, the anthropological field research is important enough to show the significance sheep has among the Mapuche.

In the case of Zululand, it has a very large amphibian population. As a result, there are numerous indigenous terms for amphibians that have proven to be useful to scientists–excluding the ones that were coined with assistance from the scientists themselves. There are variations of the Zulu words for frogs based on habits, habitats, and appearance.

While a biologist would indicate that grass frogs would appear after rainfall in humid climates, an indigenous speaker would explain that the grass frogs bring rainfall with them, as part of the folkloric aetiology behind their existence.

As such, when conlanging, folklore is an important part of word formation. So if we are to continue with the dragon example, the dragon-people–for lack of a better word–would have told tales at fire-gatherings about how the god of dragons lives in the highest peaks of mountains in order to explain why dragons live in high altitudes.

Basically, folk taxonomies come about when a population needs to be able to live off the land. Whether through story-telling or practicality, it reflects off the human condition, specifically the need to survive in any unforgiving biosphere.


De Boinod, Adam Jacot. “The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World.” Penguin Press. 2006.

Deutscher, Guy. “The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention.” 1st Edition. Metropolitan Books. 2006.

Faron, Louis C. “The Mapuche Indians of Chile.” Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 1968.

Gee, James Paul. “Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses.” 5th Edition. Routledge. 2015.

Harari, Juval Noah. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” 1st Edition. Harper-Perennial. 2018.

Harrison, K. David. “The Last Speakers: The Quest To Save The World’s Most Endangered Languages.” National Geographic. 2010.

Magga, Ole Henrik. “Diversity in Saami Terminology for Reindeer, Snow, and Ice.” International Social Science Journal, vol. 58, no. 187, Mar. 2006, pp. 25–34. EBSCOhost.

Mishler, Craig. “Linguistic Team Studies Caribou Anatomy.” Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (Arcus).

Phaka, Fortunate M. “Environmental Science Investigations of Folk Taxonomy and Other Forms of Indigenous Knowledge.” South African Journal of Science, vol. 116, no. 1, Jan. 2020, pp. 17–20. EBSCOhost.

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