Language of descriptions

Carmine Colacino colacino at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Oct 26 12:46:56 CDT 1995

26 October 1995


As usual the argument about what language to use for descriptions doesn't
find any possible agreement, as I was sure.
(Incidentally, I want you to know, that I am a "he" and not a "she" as
someone wrote :) , not that it makes any difference in referenece to the
topic, of course :)

Vic Strpic wrote on 25 Oct. 95:

>So, may I conclude: let's write the descriptions as we done before- mostly
>in English, some in  German, some in French, in some strange (and
>unfortunate >for most of us) cases in chinese, japanese or hindu.
>And do not fight - write about new species !
>That will satisfy most of all more than this discussion.

Pragmatically, I think there is no other solution; as it is not possible to
"impose" any particular language (and I think that this is correct), we
will continue to write our descriptions mostly in our own language.

Michael Ivie wrote on 25 Oct. 95:

>I know no interesting zoologist who can write eloquently in Latin, and
>I doubt that I want to.  If we are going to have our students learn a
>foreign language (and I am in strong favor of that), lets make it a
>language that is useful for something beyond sterile descriptions.

Of course, this does make sense.  As many people are able to learn English,
just so English speakers can learn another language. But the problem with
"living" languages is: which one? In the moment we decide (if ever) to use
a particular language we are giving an advantage to the speakers of that
language. Would you like to have to learn e.g., Japanese for your
descriptions? One thing is to be able to "understand" or "read" a
description in a given language, another thing is that "you have to" write
your descriptions in a foreign language. The ideal thing would be a "dead"
language or an "artificial" one (i.e. Esperanto -- which all the caveats
that Esperanto requires to be considered a real "neutral" language, being
mainly a romance language with a wider vocabulary, mainly from European
languages). But, again, why waste time to learn a language with such a
limited use? And on and on. It is a circle, and there is no solution.

Ken Harrison wote on 26 Oct. 95:
>After this preamble, my point is: If the Latin diagnosis works for one group
>of taxonomists for the past sixty years, perhaps it isn't such a bad way to
>bridge linguistic barriers in other fields? Eloquence in the language isn't
>required! :-)

Yes, Latin descriptions have worked for centuries, and they can continue to
work, if we decide so.

Michael A. Ivie wrote on 26 Oct. 95:
> I personally would prefer that everyone use a language with
>the Latin alphabet

That would be nice, even though to learn cyrillic or Greek alphabets
requires few hours. On the other side, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese,
Korean, etc., require much longer. We are trained to be biologists and not
linguists! How feasible would be to have even a limited knowledge of only
the main languages of the world? And remember that you don't find
everywhere someone that can translate that particular paper you are so
interested in from Chinese (or whatever other language) for you.
Of course, this is a very "Eurocentric" (and "US-centric") point of view.

Curtis Clark wrote on 26 Oct. 95:
>I don't know whether this is the case, because I work mainly with North
>American taxa, but what I have noticed is that in English-language journals,
>the Latin description is often an afterthought: a long English description
>followed by a short Latin diagnosis, something like "it differs from species
>X by its narrower leaves and red flowers."  The Latin description is of
>course the official one.  In a case where I couldn't read the language of
>the article, and this the more complete description, the Latin diagnosis
>would be of little use at all.

That people publish bad descriptions in Latin is a problem of those people
(I think they shouldn't be allowed to do so -- if you do want to publish a
description in Latin, you should publish a good one), not of the language
in itself.
The  Journal referees should check if the "official"  description is a good
one, or take it out. I believe.

David Bauman wrote on 26 Oct. 95:
>I feel that time and energy spent becoming familiar
>with one or more of the four or five more widely used languages (e.g.
>English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese; depending
>perhaps on specific areas of interest) would be more practical.

I think it would be certainly "better", but definitely not more "practical" :)

I think we can go on for ever on this topic, but never find an agreement.
Of course I know some English, and English could be fine with me... but I
will never be as fluent in it as a native speaker, and so I am at a
disadvantage. Why I should officially grant such a "linguistic" advantage
to anyone?




         Carmine Colacino
         Dipartimento di biologia, difesa e b.a.
         Universita` della Basilicata
         85100 Potenza, Italy

         Tel.: +39 971 474172; Fax: +39 971 474256
         Internet: colacino at

         Temporary address in U.S.A.(to Nov.4, '95):
         Dept. of Integrative Biology
         University of California
         Berkeley, CA 94720-2465

         Tel.: (510)643-9556; Fax: (510) 643-5390
         Internet: colacino at


        "When it is a question of money, everyone is of the
   same religion" -  Voltaire

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