Language of Descriptions

Curtis Clark jcclark at CSUPOMONA.EDU
Fri Oct 27 09:26:45 CDT 1995

At 04:43 PM 10/26/95 -0600, MICHAEL A. IVIE wrote:
>The discussions from Botanists show a real difference from the realities
>of zoology.  We have families of animals that are larger than all the
>flowering plants together, yet far fewer (like 2 orders of magnitude fewer)
>animal systematists per species.  Botanists describe only a few (relative

But there are also animal families with a single species.

>to zoology) species per year, with lots of specialists.  Because things
>are so well known, and there are so few per specialist, botanists seem
>content to be able to read only the descriptions of new taxa, which are
>the only things in latin (and often that "description" is really a

How about "relieved to be at least able to read the description".  I hardly
think any of us are content.

>Zoologists, on the other hand, work in a different world.  For many of
>us, 90% of our organisms remain undescribed.  Any given description by

I frankly don't know the ratio of entomologists to ornithologists, for
example, but for at least some zoologists in Europe and North America, over
90% are already described.  I have described more new plants in my career
(2.0, to be precise) than many ornithologists have described new birds from
the same regions.

>Lastly, because there are so many botanists with so few species to describe,
>botany can afford a few latin scholars to check descriptions.  Note that
>both the recent botanists replying mentioned having this done.  Zoology

But many of us do our own Latin.

>doesn't have this luxury.  Imagine the equivelant of redescribing all the
>vascular plants from scratch every 10 years!  Your latin scholars would
>be swamped.

Are English scholars swamped by zoological descriptions?  The assumption
here is that Latin is something to be translated into, not written in.
Unfortunately that is often the case, but it is not a diagnostic attribute
of the language.

>In short, zoologists have a different problem, and the botanical solution,
>while quaint, is not a good model for us.  We are glad you are happy with
>it, but it just won't export.

Quaint, is it?  We certainly have no expectation, and few of us have any
desire, to "export" the solution.  It wouldn't even work for us if it had no
historical continuity.

>Besides, since the latin description is only required in the original
>descriptions, how do you evaluate any subsequent revisions?  Surely the
>descriptions in Chinese in a 1989 monograph are more important that the
>original description of that same species, in latin, from 1840?

For nomenclatural purposes, no, they aren't.  The bottom line is that the
use of Latin in botanical description serves *only* nomenclatural purposes,
and is really superfluous for classification.

Curtis Clark                                       Voice: (909) 869-4062
Biological Sciences Department                     FAX:   (909) 869-4396
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Pomona CA 91768-4032                               jcclark at

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