Latin pronunciation

Ed Cushing cushing at UMN.EDU
Fri Jul 5 22:27:50 CDT 2002

Dear All:

A recent thread concerned variation in the pronunciation of Latin
vowels, diphthongs, and consonants. However, usage also varies in the
syllabification and accentuation of the names of taxa. In teaching
ecology and beginning plant taxonomy (in the midwestern U.S.), I try
hard to encourage students to pronounce Latin names with confidence
(especially as an aid to memory). I give them phonetic spellings, repeat
names often, and make up little verses and songs to illustrate the
rhythm of the words. For consistency, I have drawn on three references:
my 1936 Latin textbook, Stearn's (1966) Botanical Latin, and Fernald's
(1950) Gray's Manual. Fernald is one of the few American plant
taxonomists who dares to indicate where the accent of a name falls and
whether the accented vowel is long or short. Usually,  these
recommendations agree with what I hear my colleagues saying, but there
are exceptions. Two of my favorites are:

Urtica dioica, a widespread stinging nettle. Fernald puts a long accent
on the "i" in the next to last syllable: ur-TIE-ka die-o-EYE-ka. What I
mostly hear from colleagues, however, is: UR-ti-ka die-OH-i-ka, with the
penultimate i's short (as in "hit").

Abies, the genus of firs. Fernald makes the "A" short, and division
should be into three syllables: AH-bee-ess (as in "Abies is obvious").
But mostly I hear (from Midwestern professionals) something more like:
A-bees, with the "A" long (as in "ate") and with only two syllables.

I would be glad to receive opinions from other readers of Taxacom about
the way these two names are (or should be) pronounced in their region of
the world. Address them to cushing at If I get many responses,
I'll summarize them on Taxacom.

Personally, I value linguistic and cultural diversity as much as I value
biodiversity, and I doubt whether pronunciations can ever be
standardized. Our mother's (and professor's) tongue is always with us.
Let us be thankful that the spelling of our Latin names are now standard
throughout the world. When we are in different regions of the world, let
us listen carefully to our hosts and try, out of courtesy, to imitate
them. As an Indonesian proverb puts it: "Masuk kandang kambing
mengembik, masuk kandang kerbau menguak" (roughly translated "If you are
in a goat pen, bleat; if you enter a cattle pen, moo").


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