Birds and Words: Exploring environmental influences on folk categorization

AbstractAnthropologists and psychologists have long studied how living kinds are organized into categories, and a recurring theme concerns the relationship between folk categories and the structure of the environment. We ask whether the frequency and physical size of a species affects how it is classified, and address this question by linking frequency data from eBird (an online database of bird observations) with an existing taxonomy of Zapotec bird names. A first set of analyses explores whether frequency and size predict whether a bird is named and how many other birds it is grouped with. A second set explores whether frequency and size predict the word forms used as category labels. We find some evidence that frequency affects both category extensions and naming, but the results hint that frequency may be dominated by other factors such as perceptual similarity.

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