A linguistic mapping experiment. This article from The Journal of Cognition and Culture describes how Olga Stepanova and John D. Coley devised two linguistics experiments to show that Russian and English terms for jealousy and envy are not equivalent. In English “jealous” covers both (broadly) being jealous of a relationship between other people and being “envious” of a quality or possession belonging to another person but Russians have two terms that are not interchangeable. English speakers were far more likely to rank descriptions of “jealousy” situations and “envy” situations as similar than Russian speakers were. Interestingly, Russians who had learned English were less likely to note a clear distinction between the two terms than the monolingual Russians, suggesting that learning English had introduced some conceptual “blurring”.

Conceptual mapping strikes me as a subtle but important issue for taxonomists. It is obvious that mapping in multilingual environoments can be problematic, but presumably the conceptual “blurring” that bilingual people experience can happen within information domains in a single language. In other words, just knowing that other people use a term to mean something different opens up broader categorisation possibilities. Trivially, if you don’t know something has an alternative meaning you will only indicate one place for it in a taxonomy, but conversely knowing the alternative adds a layer of complication to work through. It’s an issue that seems obvious from practical work, but I am always reassured to see experiments supporting apparent common sense.