Botanical Latin Guide (History, Pronunciation, Rules & Meanings)


Throughout my years of engagement with different hobbyist organizations, it has become clear to me that most people are absolutely perplexed by the usage of Latin in the name of species. Questions such, “Why Latin?” or “How can a person remember all of those names?” or “How do you know how to pronounce the words?” have led me to this conclusion, as have the often mocked, almost excruciating mispronunciations I’ve heard. I raised the notion of creating a pronunciation guide to assist individuals in answering those and other questions, and I was urged to do so. What follows is an effort to explain some of the laws and debunk many of the misunderstandings surrounding Botanical Latin, often known as Scientific Latin.

Brief prehistory

People all around the globe observed natural events and named the many species and things they encountered in the early days of discovery. Each group had its own language, and everything worked well as long as groupings did not contact other, unrelated groups. Of course, groups converged for one cause or another throughout time, and the question of naming things became a matter of who was numerically or politically powerful in the community. Nonetheless, although one term may have been preferred over another by a dominant group in a culture, and the other group(s) of individuals within that society may have been compelled to adopt that name, words from subordinate languages, which may have even been forbidden, remained. Names transported from one geographical region to another as the name of one creature were also allocated to a comparable plant or animal in a new site. As a consequence, many distinct names began to be used for the same thing throughout time by individuals who had been mixed together for one cause or another. These so-called “common names” caused confusion in plant and animal naming. For example, there are still various plants known as “Black-Eyed Susans,” as well as several species known as “Mosquito Fish.” Something had to be done to standardise names so that everyone knew what everyone else was talking about. This became even more crucial when the era of discovery began, with the introduction of hundreds of newly known species into the globe.

Because many of the early discoverers were Romans, they wrote in classical Latin, mostly concerning flora. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) wrote extensively on plants, and Latin became dominant because parts of his works survived until the present period. Latin was thought to be the finest language for the job since it was the only language available at the time that was sophisticated enough to describe creatures in any depth. Furthermore, most educated individuals knew Latin, allowing a scientist in Sweden to communicate with one in Italy. Latin remained a common conversational language among scientists long into the 18th century.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish botanist and physician with a penchant for systematics, enters the picture. With the increase in global travel and exploration, so many new organisms became known to Europeans that most of them went completely unclassified because there were too many things to describe, too few people to describe them, and, most importantly, no system or accepted language to describe them in. None of the existing languages could fit all of the new and varied forms that were to be described. Linnaeus’ contributions to the process included deformalizing classical Latin, increasing taxonomy vocabulary by adding terms never before used in plant descriptions, and, most importantly, permitting the use of terminology from foreign languages. Greek words, colloquialisms (words of local use), eponyms (names derived from the names of individuals or places), and other terms were included into the vocabulary. Thus, with its “Latinized” foreign terms, the newly extended and expanding “language,” Scientific Latin, could henceforth describe anything that was found.

The initial stage in developing a naming system was to create a taxonomical hierarchy. Each division in the hierarchy indicates a group of creatures that are distinct enough from everything that came before them to earn their own categorization. Suffixes represent each level of the hierarchy (word endings). Many of the names are drawn from root words in the names of important members of the organisation. Water lilies, for example, belong to the genus Nymphea, the family Nympheaceae, the Order Nympheales, and so on. Each level builds on the same base word, Nymphea, and adds suffixes to indicate relative location. This is true for conversational Latin as well as all levels of Scientific Latin, from individual organism names to formal plant descriptions.

The use of endings to indicate a word’s location inside a sentence is as common in conversational Latin as it is in today’s Romance languages (French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese). To change the basic term, prefixes and suffixes are utilised, such as bi-flora (two flowered), flori-bunda (many flowered), poly-sperma (many seeded), and so on. As a result, a short vocabulary may go a long way if it contains the fundamental prefixes signifying number, size, form, and colour. Of course, mastery of the language requires a large vocabulary, but a workable vocabulary is simple to acquire if one just pauses and thinks about each name as it is learnt. Most of the names make great sense, being descriptive in nature. It’s always exciting to discover the familial link between two seemingly unrelated plant species, such as two members of the Euphorbiaceae family.

But suffixes are important for more than that. Because the species being named are all things, their names are nouns. There are various varieties of nouns, each with its own set of supporting words or prepositions (of, by, with, for, etc.). They are terms that pre-position your mind to think of the noun in a certain manner, in my opinion. The fish is the direct object of the sentence, or the item conducting the action, in the statement “The fish swam by the rock,” whereas the rock is the indirect object, or the thing being acted upon. These distinctions are referred to as cases. In classical Latin, there are six situations. They are the Nominative (nom. ), Vocative (voc. ), Accusative (acc. ), Genitive (gen. ), Dative (dat. ), and Ablative (dat. ). (abl.). Botanical Latin employs everything except the vocative. The chart below will provide an explanation for each.

There are several ends that indicate particular characteristics of an organism. The suffixes -ensis or -icus, for example, indicate that the organism comes from a certain location, such as Scirpus californicus or Sagittaria montevidensis. Another example is the suffix -oides, which means “in the shape of.” This suffix appears in the names of at least two prominent aquatic plants, the Water Poppy (Hydrocleis nymphaeoides) and the Nymphoides genus, which has numerous exquisite species. You may have noticed a distinction between the two terms, Nymphoides and nymphaeoides. This is due to the fact that Nymphoides is a genus, hence its name is in the nominative case, but nymphaeoides is in the genitive case. The suffixes -formis or -formes may also be used to signify “in the form of.”

Unfortunately, names may change, which makes it difficult for those of us who attempt to keep up with this type of stuff. Through fresh discoveries and ongoing research, previously undiscovered traits of the animals and plants under investigation are being extracted, enabling them to be more elaborately and, hopefully, more precisely identified. There are “Lumpers” and “Splitters” in the realm of Taxonomy, those who want to loosen the criterion for being regarded unique, and others who want to separate hairs and utilise progressively tiny structures to identify “specieshood.” Of course, all of this leads to the inevitable misunderstanding among members of the different enthusiast organisations. All of the intricacies of nomenclature will take time to master. For the time being, we will concentrate on correctly pronouncing the words.

In the end, how these words, or any words, are spoken is determined by what sounds good to the majority of people’s ears. While some rules apply and should be followed as strictly as possible, and purists may demand that we follow all rules to the letter, colloquial pronunciations, inflections, and other norms will govern how every one person may pronounce any given word to a great degree. Even Roman inhabitants spoke Latin with various dialects throughout their huge empire. Furthermore, rigid adherence to pronunciation standards might result in unpleasant or impossible pronunciations. Words like Equisetum, E-QUI-se-tum, would be difficult to identify if said as the rules require, yet the usual mispronunciation, E-qui-SE-tum, is significantly more known. The term algae is another good example. The actual pronunciation of this term is nearly unintelligible to the ordinary American since it is so commonly mispronounced. The letter g, like in go, is always difficult in Latin. For a long time, Americans pronounced it with a soft g, like in genuine. The error is exacerbated by the fact that the most often used term, algae, with a soft g, is employed as a single noun although it is really the plural version of the word alga, with a hard g. There are several instances of this kind of thing in hobbyist circles.

The vowels in English are pronounced similarly to those in Spanish, as seen in the chart below. While it is hard to prevent all Anglicized vowel pronunciations, unless the plant was named after a person or a location, in which case the name is always pronounced as its owner pronounced it. Another area of contention for most people is the usage of ii and iae at the end of names commemorating persons. If the regulations are to be rigorously followed, the suffixes provide issues. When the guidelines are followed, the emphasis is placed on the syllable preceding the suffix, xxx’-i-i or xxx’-i-ae, which is not where it should be, making the word difficult to say. In most of these circumstances, it is better to pronounce the honoured person’s name first, then add a double long I sound, as in wendtii, wendt’-ee-ee, or willisii, wil’ lis-ee-ee. Most people pronounce wil’ lis-eye with a single long I sound, like in English (see pronunciation guide below). This is and will most likely become more common.
The way we pronounce our consonants differs relatively slightly. For example, we do not need that all R’s be trilled. It is an uncommon American that trills his R’s at all, particularly while speaking Botanical Latin. And, unlike in so-called Reformed Academic Latin, we pronounce ph as f. This is not a mistake, but rather a holdover from Greek. What is not permitted is letter rearrangement (Cynolebias being said Cynoblias) or letter addition or omission (Anacharius instead of Anacharis).

It should be mentioned that the majority of individuals are more acquainted with the word than they realise. The terms in Botanical Latin are typically drawn from the same Greek and Latin origins as many English words. Words like Sagittaria should provide no difficulty to anybody who stops to consider that this is the same word as Sagittarius, the constellation. Similarly, colours (rubra, purpurea, alba), numbers (uni, mono, bi, tri, etc.), size (grandis, minima), growth habit (reclinata, erecta), and so on are readily identifiable.

As previously said, merely paying attention to the names of the plants and animals you maintain and linking them with names you meet may teach you a lot about what you have and help you feel confident in how you pronounce their names. Dissecting the word into its constituent pieces makes it simpler to correctly pronounce the complete word and understand what it signifies.

The following charts present a set of basic principles of pronunciation, followed by a chart illustrating the pronunciations of particular letters and letter combinations. This is followed by a list of noun cases and their meanings. Finally, a chart depicting some of the taxonomic system’s divisions, as well as some of the most common endings connected with each division. This final list is not exhaustive.

GENERAL RULES

  1. All vowels are spoken in Botanical Latin, therefore -oides is pronounced o-i-des, not oi-des, as in Oy vay!
  2. When the penultimate (second from the end) syllable is short, emphasis is put on the antepenultimate (third from the end), as in flo’-ri-dus, la-ti -fo’-li-us, syl-va’-ti -cus.
    • Antepenultimate is a definition. Third from the bottom. The pen-ultimate is the second from the last syllable (pen = nearly, as in pen-insula, almost an island). The ante-penultimate is the one before the second from the end (ante, as in Ante Meridian, A.M., before the meridian or noon).
  3. When the penultimate (second from the end) syllable is lengthy, i.e., for-mo’-sus, or when the final two vowels are separated by two consonants, i.e., cru-en’-tus, emphasis is put on it.
  4. When using an eponym, always pronounce the celebrated person’s name as they would have and then add the Latin ending, i.e., Clivea is pronounced with a long I not a short one as many people do. His name was Clive, not Clivv.
  5. Names ending in -ensis are used to commemorate a location. Always pronounce the location’s name properly, then add the finish. For example, ne-va-den’-sis from Nevada; cal-i-for-ni-en’-sis from California; and mon-tev-iden’-sis from Montevideo.
  6. When two vowels occur together, the first is short. For example, car’ne-a, gi-gan’-te-a

PRONUNCIATION GUIDE

Indicating main differences between Latin and traditional English
Reformed Academic Latin Traditional English

Individual vowels:

a as a in hall as a in fate
a as a in apart as a in fat

e as e in they as e in me
e ae e in pet as e in pet

i as i in machine as i in ice
i as i in pit as i in pit
ii
iae

o as o in note as o in note
o as o on not as o in not

u as u in brute as u in brute
u as u putt as u in putt

y as u in French pur as y in cypher
y as u in French du as y in cynical

Combinations of vowels

ae as ai in aisle as ea in meat
au as aw in bawl as aw in bawl
ei as ei in rein as ei in height
oe as oi in toil as ee in bee
ui as oui (French), we as ui in ruin

Common Diphthongs

(combinations of two vowels, treated as one, long vowel)
ae as ee in feel
oe as ee in feel

Consonants

c always as c in cat before a, o, u as c in cat
before e, i, y as c in center
cc always as cc in succinct always as cc in succinct
ch of Greek words as k or ch as ch in chemical or as ch
or k-h, if possible in cheat
g always as g in go before a, o, u, as g in gap
before e, i, y as g in gypsy
ng as ng in finger as ng in finger
ph as p or, preferably, p-h as ph in telephone
r always trilled
v (consonant u) as we as v in van
b, d, f, h, l, m, n, p, s, t, qu, z always as in English

NOUN CASES

CaseMeaning 
NominativeSubject of the sentence.ex. The flower is white.
AccusativeDirect Object of the sentence.ex. I pick the white flower.
GenitiveOf (used in epithets commemorating persons, other spp.),
possessive.
ex. The petals of the flower are white.
DativeIndirect Object (to, for)ex. I provided water for the
flower.
AblativeThe case of the Agent. (with, by, or from) stating essential
features with which a sp. is provided.
ex. I surprized
her with the flower (abl. of accompaniment) with the
white petals (abl. of description). Used in descriptive
texts. This case is a combination of three ancient cases
and so is used for many things.
VocativeNot used in Botanical Latin. 

TAXONOMICAL DIVISIONS

ClassificationSuffixCaseComments
KingdomaeNom. 
Division   
Class-osae’  
Order-ales  
S-order-ineaeNom. 
Family-aceae some very old exceptions, incl.
Labiatae, Umbelliferae, and
Gramineae. Ending added to the name
of a legitimate genus within the family.
S-family-oideaeNom.added to the name of an included genus.
Genus-iaNom.Names formed by treating an adjective as a noun. Gender is taken from the ending
adopted, usually feminine, e.g., Setaria, nom., fem., singular of Setarius.
Species-ii
-iae
-is
-us
-ei
-arum
-orum
-um
-ium
-uum
-erum
Gen.Used in specific epthets commemorating people, or to describe various qualities.
ex. Acacia baileyii, Bailey’s Acacia
effusus, spread out, diffuse, wide
antheris, by, with, or from the anthers Gen. pl.
ex. Echeveria baileyorum – Echeveria of the Baileys

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