Pronunciation of scientific names

paul handford handford at JULIAN.UWO.CA
Fri Jul 19 10:12:57 CDT 1996

At 13:12 1996/07/18 -0500, Thomas G. Lammers wrote:

>Each day, the Museum's "Life Over Time" exhibit is thronged by children
>as young as pre-school age, gleefully shouting things like, "Mommy, look!
>An Apatosaurus!" or "Oooh!  Tyrannosaurus rex!"
>I have never in my life met a gardener (or non-gardener, for that matter)
>who was intimidated by "begonia", "chrysanthemum", "geranium", "cosmos",
>"Dahlia", etc., or who failed to pronounce them more-or-less correctly.
>In my experience, scientific names coined from Latin roots are not that
>difficult for most speakers of Romance and Teutonic languages to pronounce
>in an understandable fashion.

This is all quite true, but I think that the pronunciation problems are not
really PRONUNCIATION problems, rooted in the sounds themselves, but in the
interpretation and recognition of the WRITTEN names.

I run a field-course which depends a lot on the students making the
aquaintance of many (desert) plants;  the students have little problem
saying "Prosopis" "Machaerocereus" etc. etc. back to the instructor
following their being told that "this here is Prosopis juliflora etc. etc"
Where the problem ALWAYS comes in is in their READING the scientific names
in the floras, and in RECOGNISING Prosopis, Chilopsis etc. etc. as WRITTEN
words.  My interpretation of this consistent phenomenon has been that many
of the students these days learned to read without any exposure to phonics,
so they find it very difficult to WORK OUT a new word, or even RECOGNISE
one that they are quite happy to pronounce.  If the whole word looks alien,
they are stymied into inaction.

Another thought about this.  I also work with students in Argentina, and
they seem to have ABSOLUTELY no problem in this area.  Now maybe they all
learn to read with phonics (and why wouldn't you, with an obliging language
like Spanish?), but I had always supposed that they are so used to words
sounding like they look in their own language, that they simply transfer
this approach to the (ususally latinate) names........ and it works.

paul handford
ecology & evolution group
zoology department
university of western ontario
519-661-3149   FAX  519-661-2014

Every man will dispute with great good humour upon a subject in which he is
not interested.
Samuel Johnson.

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