Formality of Latin description

Frederick J. Peabody fpeabody at SUNFLOWR.USD.EDU
Wed Nov 22 09:35:19 CST 1995

On Wed, 22 Nov 1995, Gomez Luis Diego wrote:

> Latin descriptions have nothing to do with the quality of the taxonomist who
> proposes a new name, rather it is a means to make that description
> universal in the sense that any serious botanists should know the basics to
> read a description regardless of her/his native tongue.

This is an excellent point, actually two points.  As I have noted
previously on both accounts, Latin composition among botanists is a mixed
bag:  there is good and not-so-good.  The universallity of the Latin
language among botanists is to be cherrished, although it is probably
fading.  I spoke with a Chinese botanist one time over lunch at the
Highlands Biological Station, North Carolina, while I was eating soda
crackers with my soup.  He asked me what they were made of.  I replied
with "wheat" which meant nothing to him.  Subsequently I used the word
"Triticum" and a wave of understanding passed over his face.  I offered
some to him but was politely declined.  We spent time walking in the
beautiful forests of the Appalachians comparing notes of the genera and
species of these once-connected lands.  Most of our words were in Latin
since that was our common understanding.  I guess that I could, and
should, pick up some Mandarin since many of the earth's people speak this

> However, I have seen in my 35 years of systematics and taxonomy that fewer
> persons are trained to do that. Most younger PhD do not even speak or read
> any foreign language like German or French, least of all a dead language like
> Latin. Maybe we should aim at offering a course of Basic Latin as a
> prerequisite for a botanical major?

My feeling is that anyone who is really interested in systematic botany
will desire to gain access to the foundation works of our science by
seriously studying Latin.  I offer a course here at the university in
Botanical Latin - not attended by many - but we do have a great time.

> As to peer reviewed descriptions I volunteer two anecdotes. In 1992 two
> of us sent a ms. to one of the most prestigious botanical periodicals in the
> US. The taxon described, in classical Latin (not the Tarzanesque variety
> found in ready made description examples) and read as this| genus species
> nobis (nobis meaning of ours, the two authors) The editor sent a note
> asking who the third author, Mr. Nobis was, since the person was not included
> in the title.
> Another one. A very well known and respected ecologist working in South
> America sent a paper to a US societal peridical. It had to do with swamp
> forests and he referred to an association as Rhizophoretum. The editor sent
> the peer review saying Rhizophoretum seem to be an invalid genus as no
> reference to it can be found...

Your anecdotes are at once entertaining and regrettable!

> Less anecdotal is the aspect of biological vs. taxonomical species. It may
> be all right to have Dr. XX who is the expert on turkish species of Allium
> suggest to an incumbet author of a new species that it may be best to have
> it merged with species aa, or propose it as a variety of species hh, because
> the genus within that geographical area is known taxonomically and
> biologically (e.g. DNA). But such knowledge is not always the case. What if
> Dr. XX is what we call a lumper? The judgement of the author proposing
> something new will be culled by that arbiter.

Your concern here is understandable, although new work in a taxon is, and
always will be, subject to review by "the establishment" whatever, or
whoever that might be.  Lumper vs. splitter judgement calls are made
every day and meaningful dialog between proponents of each side are a
welcomed product of systematics.

> The publication of a new taxon in accordance to the Intl. Code of Bot.
> Nomencl. should be done in a publication of wide distribution and all
> botanists know that so the potential problem of publishing in the Boggsville
> Clarion Sunday Supplement is really not one of importance.

Unfortunately, the example cited above of an obscure reference is closer
to one end of the spectrum, and there are many examples where the
"obscurity" is rather relative.

> If we were to modernize botany and publish not in Latin but in any of the
> current languages, the one of the majority should be chosen as the official
> lingua franca of descriptors. I guess that wiould be chinese. Mandarin,
> perhaps? What is wrong with a little effort to learn a bit of Latin? Do not
> we all learn without complaint the jargon of internet?


> Registration of new taxa should be the responibility of the compilers of
> indices, e.g. Index Kewensis, secondly of editors of periodicals who should
> make certain their publication is covered and included and in third place
> of the authors who could (and maybe should) send a reprint to the indexers.

Another excellent point.

> Let us not place any more obstacles in front of those who already
> represent an endangered species in this world of molecular fingerprinting.

Do I detect a note of bitterness here?

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