Saturday, December 09, 2006

Name That Species

For some unknown reason I was reading a description of Species 8472. This was the species of aliens on Star Trek Voyager that came from another dimension and were so advanced that not even the Borg could resist them (it's futile, they should know).

In the descriptive overview it was written that Species 8472 was only the name given to them by the Borg (not this Borg). Their actual name is unknown." I was a little stumped by this. Does anything have an "actual name" outside of what they are called? If the Borg call them that and we call them that, then that's their name. I suppose if we could figure out what they called themselves then there might be a case made to favour the self-naming of the group. But we don't even allow that respect to the people of a certain Scandinavian country by the name of Finland because in Finland their country is called Suomi (I know because I saw it on their hockey sweaters).

This approach to thinking of things as having real names is a little too Platonist for me. It's like saying that raccoons have an "actual name" apart from what we call them in our various languages? Maybe that would be what the raccoons call themselves?

Which brings me to another question about naming. We sometimes name things or animals based on the sounds they make. This is perhaps the simplest method of nomenclature. A child may call a dog "woof woof" or say "meow" when pointing to the cat. A car may be referred to as "doo doot" for the sound of the horn or "vroom vroom" for the sound of the engine. So if raccoons were to come up with a name for us humans what would they call us? It seems clear to me that they would call us raccoon because that is usually what they hear us say when they come across a human. If I am walking with a friend and we see a raccoon one or both of us will say something like "look, raccoon" or "there's a raccoon" or "wow a raccoon" or "shh, raccoon. The point is that whenever those masked bandits see us they hear us make the sound "raccoon". That is the sound they most associate with us humans and that is what they would likely call us if asked to name those curious bipedal creatures that leave food for them every night in large covered plastic bowls.

1 comment:

amy said...


in many indigenous groups, the self-designated name of the group is the word that means simply "people". the names groups give to neighboring groups might mean things like "gibberish" or "vicious babykillers" or any number of derogatory things. often these names stick because when linguists or missionaries come to an area they make contact with a group and ask what are the names of other groups in the area.

and so we end up with a bunch of languages whose name means "gibberish".

there is power in a name!