Pronunciation of Latin

Lammers lammers at FMNH785.FMNH.ORG
Tue Dec 12 09:02:34 CST 1995

I am probably in the minority of systematists in actually having taken a
course in Latin, during my freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame High.
Sister Mary Norbertine had very definite ideas about the pronunciation of
Latin, though I do seem to recall a lecture on how pronunciation changed
and evolved, even during the centuries that Latin was a "living" language.
Of course, when I went off to the university and became a botany major and
tried to apply the rules Sister Norbertine had taught us, by professors
all looked at me like I was stupid, and the graduate students laughed at
me.  The point in the Jepson Manual is well taken: we learn our pronunciation
of Latin binomials from those around us.  Attempts at codification and
standardization are doomed to failure.

Personally, I have not had too much trouble understanding the pronunciation
of binomials by botanists whose first language is not English during overseas
travels that have included France, Germany, Chile, Taiwan, and even Hawaii.
The few times I have had trouble has largely been because the name was not
familiar to me, even once I saw it in print.  (Hey, with over 300,000 species
of angiosperms, there's bound to be a few binomials I haven't seen before!)
Names that were familiar, such as "Quercus" or "Acer" or "Chrysanthemum" or
even "Lobelia" are usually understood.  The one exception was a Chilean
colleague who was telling me about "Alloragis"; it was sometime before I
realized that I would insert an aspirated H at the beginning: Haloragis!
Names of unfamiliar plants are difficult to decipher when heard, regardless
of the pronunciation.  I frequently have to ask, "How do you spell that?"
in such instances, whether or not the speaker's first language is English.

Which perhaps gets to a central point: most of our communication with
persons who speak other languages is written, via e-mail, snail mail,
fax, or publications.  Pronunciation is then a moot point; just spell it
right.  When we are visiting other countries, I think courtesy dictates
that we listen closely and try to shift our own pronunciation to match
that of our hosts.  As the one post pointed out, a series of vowel shifts
is what largely makes English Latin different from other Latin "dialects".
When we are hosts, courtesy also dictates that we not point out to visitors
that their pronunciation is "wrong".  After a short time in Chile, I
was talking about "Alloragis" and "Wahlenbairzhia" [Wahlenbergia] and
"Steepa" [Stipa] with little trouble.

Thomas G. Lammers                      Department of Botany
Field Museum of Natural History        Chicago IL 60605-2496 USA

lammers at

"In no affairs of mere prejudice, pro or con, do we deduce inferences with
 entire certainty, even from the most simple data."   -- Edgar Alan Poe

More information about the Taxacom mailing list