Dump Latin!

Curtis Clark jcclark at CSUPOMONA.EDU
Sat Feb 27 08:55:05 CST 1999

At 10:20 AM 2/27/99 -0500, Mark Garland wrote:
>I know Latin.  I like Latin.  I write Latin descriptions for people.  But
>think that an objective evaluation will lead botanists to replace it with
>modern languages--not necessarily English alone.

I know and like Latin as well. English is my first language; I'm somewhat
familiar with its history, and I'm still capable of grading a student paper
for grammar. IMHO, modern English is not used with the precision necessary
for botanical description. I once reviewed a ms. for a journal that
contained an English diagnosis and its translation into Latin. I no longer
remember the details, but there was a construction in the English diagnosis
that seemed to make sense, but when I read the Latin it was
incomprehensible, despite the fact that every word was translated correctly
and the grammar was correct. The English had used a combination of
adjectives and "adjective nouns" ("adjective" in the quoted phrase is an
example of an adjective noun :-). The Latin cast those as nouns in
apposition (the standard solution), but it was unclear which among the
nouns the actual adjectives were modifying. The resulting phrase was
ambiguous. Of course it was also ambiguous in English, but I had glossed
right over it, thinking I understood it, because I am used to such
construction in English.

Some years ago (and maybe still), doctoral students at some US universities
were able to take a course in a computer programming language to satisfy
part of their language requirement. The contrast between computer language
and natural language is a relevant one here. Computer languages are
literally algorithmically precise (the ones that aren't, usually aren't
successful). Even when there are different ways of "saying" the same thing,
they are *exactly* equivalent. The only "nuance" in programming is
achieving the same result by a different set of steps. Despite the allure
of "fuzzy logic" and natural language query engines, the basic instructions
have to be precise.

Botanical Latin is closer to a programming language than to a natural
language, because an almost algorithmic precision is needed to
unambiguously describe plants. If there were a "Botanical English", used by
everyone who describes plants. I would support that as a substitute for
Latin. But there will always be the tendency for English-speakers to "write
what they know" rather than attending to careful construction. Latin has
the advantage that *everyone* must take care with it.

Curtis Clark                  http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/
Biological Sciences Department             Voice: (909) 869-4062
California State Polytechnic University      FAX: (909) 869-4078
Pomona CA 91768-4032  USA                  jcclark at csupomona.edu

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