A new and ambitious working group, Indigenous Names for South African Birds (INSAB), has been established to produce a list of bird names in traditional South African languages. This will help a broader sector of South Africans to appreciate and conserve our birds and their habitats.

The names you will be familiar with in bird books, e.g. Cape Rockjumper, did not evolve naturally. They were standardised at some point in the past, and the process is ongoing as taxonomic updates continue to frustrate birders. The standardisation is now done at international level for languages such as English, French, and Spanish. Locally, the Afrikaans Voëlnaamgroep (Bird Name Group) standardised the regional list of Afrikaans bird names.

For the other languages, generic names for a lot of bird groups exist, but almost no species-specific names exist. Various linguists have recorded traditional names, but more for language studies than really to standardise the names. Most young speakers of African languages do not know the names of birds in their own language. This could lead to names being lost as time goes by, which makes the mandate of this new committee an urgent one.

Building on the work of the broader African Bird Names Group, the INSAB will bring together and facilitate people doing research on bird names, ornithologists, linguists, and, most importantly, those birders traditionally speaking the languages. In this way, each species name should reflect the language and culture of the people that speak these as home languages. There are opportunities for researchers to publish books and research articles for those wishing to get involved.

Ingrid Weiersbye, ( I.W)
Ingrid Weiersbye, ( I.W)

The last few months have seen the initiation of a formal working group to assign names in South African languages to all the species listed in the South African Checklist of Birds (maintained by Dr. Chris Lotz, Chairperson of the National List Committee). In the first meeting in August 2021, Dr. Johan Meyer was appointed chair of this new committee. The main aim of the committee will be to oversee language-specific working groups that have the ambitious aim to assign a preferred name to all South Africa’s bird species. Furthermore, with time, the group aims to do this for all 9 African languages of South Africa. This may sound like an easy task, but that is far from the case. Consider that many bird species occur in parts of the country where traditionally the languages have not been spoken. Furthermore, many species carry a group name, and contrasting to this is that some species have many names due to regional dialects.

The rich birdlife of South Africa can only be appreciated and conserved by everyone if there exists a unique name for each bird of the region in the various South African languages. The goal of the committee is just this: to ensure that each bird species in Southern Africa has a species-specific name in all the official languages. While this may sound like an easy task, one cannot simply translate names from English to other languages. The new names need to originate from those that speak the languages, are familiar with the birds, and the names need to capture the essence of the birds in the relevant culture. The process needs to be guided by language specialists. This involves teams of people and lots of discussion and lots of time.

In order to achieve the primary goal, the group will initially focus on Zulu, facilitated by Professor Adrian Koopman, and Northern Sotho, facilitated by Lucas Namanyane and Johan Meyer.

If anybody with a knowledge of bird names in any of the African languages of the region would like to help us, they can contact Johan at meyer.ij@gmail.com. Let us make conservation local!