Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 8 March 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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Dr C.M.W. Tang writes from Georgetown, Guyana, to say that an English lady professor of his acquaintance was perplexed when she was admitted to a hospital there and had to tick her race as 'Caucasian'. She wondered what connection she was supposed to have with a mountain range.

She might well. We are all familiar from American cop shows on television with Caucasian as a racial label. But as far as I can tell, a German was to blame for the category. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) thought that the 'white' races came from the Caucasus region, and he was acknowledged as the founder of physical anthropology. Actually, that is what a late-20th-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica said. The 11th edition (1911) calls him the founder of anthropology, not physical anthropology. In those days social anthropology was the younger sister, while now anthropology is ordinarily taken to mean social anthropology.

Blumenbach was a doctor by training, and I often like to guy my husband on the fickleness of science, which one minute tells us that a theory is 'scientifically proven', and that old-fashioned arty and religious types should move on. Then a few decades later the theory is exploded, and sometimes denigrated as morally repugnant. Such was the fate of Blumenbach's categorisation of humanity, mostly based on measurement of the skull. In 1911 we were assured that 'this classification has been very generally received'. The human race divided up into five families: the Mongolian or yellow; the Negro (or Ethiopian) or black; the Malayan or brown; the American or red; and the white Caucasians.

As craniometrical instruments became more refined, so racial categories developed in complexity. In our own day of DNA, which can show that everyone called Sykes came from the same village, or that all Europeans are descended from seven strong women, I should have thought physical anthropology would be resurgent. But the whole idea of race is widely mistrusted.

Yet North American usage remains puzzling. Negro is out, black is dZmodZ, African-American is in, as is Native American, even if it is assumed that those people wandered in from Asia. Red Indian is definitely out, although it is hard to see why, except that they are neither red nor Indian.

Dr Tang finds that he is invited to identify himself as 'Chinese' by hospitals in Guyana, with no mention of his Guyanese or British citizenship. The recent British census invited identification according to overlapping categories. It's a mess. Let's stick to languages. The Caucasus, they tell me, harbours 38.