How Do You Say That?

A Guide to the Perversities of Botanical Latin

Along with slugs and aching backs, botanical Latin ranks high on the list of things that people hate most about gardening. Yet anyone who has gardened more than a year or two will usually—if grudgingly—admit the necessity of using Latin plant names, for the very good reason that if we rely only on common English names, precise communication about plants becomes impossible. Say a friend wants to give you a bluebell. Is it Hyacinthoides, Campanula, or Mertensia? Or perhaps you’re offered a “japonica.” Which japonica? Chaenomeles, Pieris, or some other of the hundreds of plants that bear this specific epithet?

Even after you’ve capitulated to the use of Latin names, there comes the whole vexed business of how to pronounce them. Often they seem maddeningly arbitrary. Why is it CLEM-a-tis and not clem-AT-is? And who would ever have dreamed that Cotoneaster is pronounced co-tone-ee-ASS-ter and not cotton-Easter? Although you’d never guess it, this mighty maze does indeed have a plan, one that, strangely enough, is tied to the history of Latin as it was taught and used in England.

First, however, we need to brush away a few linguistic cobwebs. For many, the attempt to master botanical Latin is complicated by exposure to competing modes of Latin pronunciation. One is the Latin taught in high schools, colleges, and universities, which is essentially the best guess of late-19-century philologists as to what the ancient Romans sounded like when they were chatting about the shocking price of olive oil or whether it would be a good idea to wipe out the Carthaginians. (When it was introduced into school curricula, in the early decades of the 20th century, it was referred to as the “reformed pronunciation.” You can think of it as the “weeny, weedy, weaky” school.) But this way of pronouncing Latin never gained a foothold in the scientific world.

Another possible source of confusion is the Latin used (though much less extensively now than in the pre–Vatican II days) by the Roman Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, it is pronounced as though it were modern Italian. This is also the pronunciation you’re apt to use if you perform choral music with Latin texts.

To understand the idiosyncratic pronunciation of botanical Latin, we need to go back to the late 6th century, the point when Latin was introduced in Britain. (Or rather reintroduced, for of course Latin had been spoken by the Roman legions that had occupied Britain from the 1st to the early 5th century, and by the Romanized Celts they dominated, but the Anglo-Saxon tribes who ousted the Celts after the Romans departed were ignorant of the language.) This relatinization of Britain was carried out by missionaries sent out from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great, and they spoke and taught a Latin that, which a few minor exceptions, was the same as that spoken by 1st-century Romans. Thus for almost five centuries the early English educated classes—that is, the clergy and perhaps a smattering of nobles—spoke what was a relatively “pure” Latin.

That all changed, however, with the Norman Conquest in 1066; after that date, Latin was taught by clerics of the new ruling class, who pronounced the ancient tongue as though it were Norman French. By the time of Chaucer, some three centuries later, the French influence had been absorbed into the mainstream of common speech, and Latin came to be pronounced like Middle English. From this point on, the pronunciation of Latin paralleled that of English, so that as the phonetic values of English changed—as they did dramatically during the Great English Vowel Shift of the 16th century—so did those of English Latin. This tandem development continued until the mid-19th century, when Victorian scholars attempted for a time to reintroduce the observance of the distinction between long and short vowels. Then, a few decades later, the reformed pronunciation took hold—except in those professions and disciplines, such as botany, medicine, and law, where Latin words and phrases had long been in continual use, and here the “traditional” English pronunciation stuck.

It’s all well and good to say that botanical Latin is pronounced just like English, but what does that mean in practice? Let’s deal with the vowels first. The traditional English pronunciation of Latin divides all stressed vowels (which are the ones likely to be the most troublesome) into long and short, in exactly the same way that phonics-based systems of teaching English do:

LONGSHORT
a as in fate a as in fat
e as in reed e as in red
i as in bite i as in bit
o as in robe o as in rob
u as in fuse u as in fuss

Note that a is never ah, e is never ay, and i is never ee, as they are in the reformed pronunciation. There are, or should be, no ahs in botanical Latin; nanus and digitatus, in which the a’s are long, are pronounced naynus and digitaytus, not nahnus and digitahtus. (The exception—and you knew there had to be one, right?—involves those words that contain the letter r plus another consonant, such as Monarda or Laburnum; the vowels that precede the r + consonant pair constitute a special class of long vowels that are pronounced as ah or as a neutral sound.) The diphthongs ae and oe are pronounced as e, either long or short, depending on their position in the word; au is pronounced as in August; and eu sounds like you except when used to transliterate the Greek εο, in which case each letter is sounded. (Rheum, which comes from the Greek rheon, is an example.) Finally, terminal vowels are always pronounced: pratense is pronounced pruh-TEN-see, not PRAY-tense, and when a species name ends in -ii, both i’s are sounded (smithii is pronounced SMITH-ee-eye, not SMITH-eye).

Consonants pose no special problem, provided you remember that c is pronounced as s when it precedes e, i, y, ae, and oe, and that in the same circumstances g is pronounced as j. Before a, o, and u, both c and g are hard. Now that we’ve got basic phonics out of the way, we’re ready for the rules. Brace yourselves.

RULE 1: In general, a stressed vowel followed by two consonants is pronounced short: Canna (CAN-a), dulcis (DULL-sis), robustus (ro-BUS-tus). One exception—that concerning words that contain r plus another consonant—has already been mentioned above. Another exception occurs when a stressed vowel precedes the consonant combinations br, cr, dr, fr, gr, pr, tr, cl, or pl. In these cases, the stressed vowel is pronounced long, as in Cedrus (SEE-drus) or rubrum (ROO-brum).

RULE 2: When the penult—the next-to-last syllable in a word—is stressed, the vowel is pronounced long unless rule 1 applies. Thus Commelina is come-el-EYE-na, and Hamamelis is ham-a-MEE-lis. (Hemerocallis—hem-er-o-KAL-is—shows rule 1 in operation.)

RULE 3: When the antepenult—the syllable preceding the penult—is stressed, the vowel is pronounced short. Examples are Cytisus (SIT-a-sis) and Erigeron (er-IDGE-er-on), and of course that old favorite CLEM-a-tis. The exception is when the last and next-to-last vowels in a word are not separated by a consonant, as with the iu of Geranium. In these cases, the antepenult is pronounced long (jer-AY-nee-um). (Alas, there are even exceptions to the exception, such as Delphinium.)

An obvious question presents itself here: How the hell you figure out where the stress falls, and thus whether the vowel is long or short? If you have an expert knowledge of Latin vowel quantities and etymology, or access to an exceptionally inclusive lexicon, no problem. Otherwise, you’re pretty much screwed. That is, unless you can get your hands on some older gardening references, written by folks who really knew their botanical Latin. The two most reliable guides I’ve found are The New York Botanical Garden Illustrated Encyclopedia of Horticulture, edited by Thomas H. Everett (Garland Publishing, 1980), and Liberty Hyde Bailey’s Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (Macmillan, 1935). Both of these guys, I’d be willing to bet, had sound classical educations and could spot a long syllaba penultima at 20 paces. In both works, long vowels are indicated by a grave accent (‘) and short vowels by an acute accent (’); the accents also indicate where the stress falls. Leafing through these volumes turns up a surprising number of cases in which even seasoned gardeners use pronunciations that are, technically, incorrect. (See “Some Common Mispronunciations,” below.) Not that that’s the worst horticultural sin you can commit. (That would be planting tulip bulbs upside down.) Nor is it a good idea to go around correcting your friends. As I see it, the value of learning the traditional pronunciation of botanical Latin lies in the satisfaction of knowing that it’s governed by at least a semblance of order, and in gaining the confidence to banter plant names with snooty experts. Just think of your forays into botanical Latin as the linguistic equivalent of the first time you ate a raw oyster. As the ancient Romans said, Abeunt studia in mores, or roughly, it gets easier after you’ve done it a few times.

Some Common Mispronunciations

  • Achillea should be a-kill-EE-a, not a-KILL-ee-a
  • Ageratum should be a-JUR-a-tum, not aj-ur-AY-tum
  • Anemone should be an-eh-MOE-nee, not a-NEM-o-nee
  • Asarum should be ASS-a-rum, not a-SAH-rum
  • Brunnera should be brun-EER-a, not BRUNN-er-a
  • Cotinus should be KOTT-i-nus, not koh-TIE-nus
  • Echinops should be eh-KINE-ops, not EK-i-nops
  • Erica should be eh-RIKE-a, not AIR-i-ka
  • Lavatera should be la-VATT-er-a, not lav-a-TARE-a
  • Oxalis should be OX-a-lis, not ox-AL-is
  • Penstemon should be pen-STEE-mon, not PEN-stih-mon
  • Polygonatum should be pol-ee-GON-a-tum, not pol-ee-gon-ATE-um
  • Rheum should be REE-um, not ROOM
  • Saxifraga should be sax-IFF-ra-ga, not sax-i-FRAH-ga
  • Viola should be VYE-o-la, not vee-OH-la

As the great musical comedienne Anna Russell used to say when she was explaining the plot of Wagner’s Ring cycle, “I’m not making this up, you know.”

Oy!

The suffix -oides, meaning “resembling,” is common in the plant world, and one usually hears it pronounced OY-deez. But the suffix derives from Greek, not Latin, and is composed of two parts: the -o-, which acts as a kind of link to the preceding stem, and the -ides, which comes from the Greek eidos, meaning shape or form. Thus both the o and the i should be sounded. Moreover, the i should be treated as a long penultimate syllable, and so, for example, the specific epithet ericoides should be pronounced air-ih-koh-EYE-deez. This may be pushing human endurance past its limits, however.

By Any Other Name

The question of how to pronounce a species or genus name that is based on a personal name (for example, davidii, middendorfii, Kniphofia) raises some nice points. There are those who argue that the pronunciation ought to mimic as closely as possible the way the individual in question would have pronounced his or her name. This seems admirably polite, but could cause problems if followed rigorously. We might feel no discomfort in pronouncing Gerbera and Gesneria with hard g’s, in deference to Messrs. Gerber and Gesner (German and Swiss, respectively), but what do we do with Weigela? The genus was named for a German botanist, Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel, and if we stick to our principles, we would have to say VYE-geh-la instead of wye-JEE-la. And what on earth do we do with epithets like mlokosewitschii and tchihatcheffii, which may cause us to have uncharitable thoughts about Slavic botanists and plant collectors? We might do well to keep in mind that English has a long and honorable history of anglicizing troublesome foreign names. (Former English majors like to point out that the title of Byron’s poem Don Juan is pronounced Don Jew-un, not Don Hwan.) I say, when in doubt, anglicize.

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 97, no. 1 (January/February 2000).

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