by Greg Mayer
Following up on Matthew’s linguistic investigation of larval amphibians, I’d like to address another amphibian linguistic conundrum: the English words for adult members of the order Anura. Just as we have two standard words for a larval anuran in English, we have two standard words for the adults: frog and toad. But this linguistic duality comes nowhere near encompassing the biodiversity of anurans. There are, by many estimates, over 40 families of anurans. I myself consider this taxonomy a bit oversplit, but even a conservative taxonomy would have more than two dozen families. There are thus many more sorts of anurans than there are English words to name them. Why is this so?
The answer, I believe, is simple. In Great Britain, where the language developed, there are four native species: two frogs (Rana temporaria and Rana lessonae), and two toads (Bufo bufo and Bufo calamita). So in England, there are indeed only two sorts of anurans. Here’s one of the frogs, the common frog (North American readers will note the resemblance to our wood frog, Rana sylvatica, which also has a tympanic dark spot and dorsolateral folds):
And here’s one of the toads, the common toad (the green flecks are duckweed or some other plant):
We can distinguish frogs from toads, because frogs are more aquatic, with long hind limbs for jumping, webbed toes (easily seen above), and moist, smoother skin. Toads are more terrestrial, squat with short legs for hopping, and have dry, warty skin. And this distinction works for the anurans of Britain– the frogs are members of the family of “true frogs”– Ranidae, while the toads are members of the family of “true toads”– Bufonidae.
As the English encountered more kinds of anurans around the world, each new anuran was shoe-horned into being either a frog or a toad. Thus the long limbed, arboreal, jumping anurans of the family Hylidae (which English nobility would have encountered in their Continental estates) were called, aptly enough, tree frogs. And in the North American colonies, the squat, warty burrowing members of the family Pelobatidae were called spadefoot toads. But with dozens of families of anurans, and a great diversity of ecological habits and body forms, the distinction breaks down, and our English common names wind up forcing an exuberant diversity into just two names.
I wonder to what extent the biodiversity of a language’s native land influences the language’s naming diversity. In the only other language I (sort of) speak, Spanish, I know three words– rana (for frogs), sapo (for toads), and maco. The latter is a word I learned in the Dominican Republic, and it has a very different meaning in standard Castilian, as given by the Real Academia Española: it means ‘knave’ or ‘rogue’ if converted to a noun (in Castilian it is an adjective). It’s possible that the Dominican word is of Taino or West African origin, rather than Spanish.
So, I’d like to ask our non-Anglophone readers, how many words for kinds of adult anurans are there in your language? And how does this compare to the biological diversity?
[The title of the post refers of course to a story about demons in the Gospels. A Roman legion had 6,000 men (and there are about 6000 species of anurans). If each family of anurans should have a common name, there names would not be quite legion, but there would be a lot more than two!]