In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:
- bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
- balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
- balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
- bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.
“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”