Latin as the language of botany

The field of botany has changed its requirement that new species have their official scientific descriptions be written up in Latin.  Now an English description–though not a description in some other language–will be acceptable.  (The scientific name will still be Latin based.)  The article on the subject, though, shows just how important Latin has been and still is important in the sciences.  For one thing, ironically, the English technical vocabulary that will replace Latin itself derives from Latin etymology.  From the Washington Post:

For at least 400 years, botanists across the globe have relied on Latin as their lingua franca, but the ardor has cooled. Scientists say plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names, but they have decided to drop the requirement that new species be described in the classical language. Instead, they have agreed to allow botanists to use English (other languages need not apply). In their scientific papers, they can still describe a newly found species of plant — or algae or fungi — in Latin if they wish, but most probably won’t. . . .

Although botanical Latin paid homage to the great Roman plant chronicler, Pliny the Elder, it quickly evolved into a specialized, descriptive and scientifically precise language far removed from classical Latin. The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin, said Pliny would have understood the work of Clusius but not that of 19th-century botanical luminaries.

The wry joke is that even with the diminished role of Latin, the argot used by English-speaking botanists might as well be Latin. In describing flower parts, they speak of “the corolla tubular with spreading lobes.” The familiar thick green leaf of the magnolia is described in one encyclopedia as “elliptic to ovate or subglobose, obtuse to short-acuminate, base attenuate, rounded or cuneate, stiffly coraceous.”

As botanists increasingly seek to deconstruct organisms at the microscopic level and through DNA sequencing, the vernacular descriptions become even more opaque, said Alain Touwaide, a researcher and Latinist at the Smithsonian who would translate for botanists.

Keeping the Latin description, he argued, would ironically make it more understandable. “To make these notions understood, you have to create Latin words that have an etymological root that renders the word self-explainable,” he said.

via Botanists agree to loosen Latin’s grip – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Semper flora

  • Pete

    Semper flora

  • SKPeterson

    flora fides.

  • SKPeterson

    flora fides.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    So, living things no longer have to be described in a dead language…

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    So, living things no longer have to be described in a dead language…

  • Patrick Kyle

    My grandfather was a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution for the better part of 50 years. His idea of a good time was having his friends over to view slides he took of various plants from around the world and try to identify them by their Latin names. He is probably rolling over in his grave.

  • Patrick Kyle

    My grandfather was a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution for the better part of 50 years. His idea of a good time was having his friends over to view slides he took of various plants from around the world and try to identify them by their Latin names. He is probably rolling over in his grave.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin…

    Which definitive work can be purchased from my employer, so that’s fun.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin…

    Which definitive work can be purchased from my employer, so that’s fun.

  • SKPeterson

    Down with shameless plugs from the neo-Belgians and their fancy headgear.

  • SKPeterson

    Down with shameless plugs from the neo-Belgians and their fancy headgear.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    All classical educators should get that book from tODD’s company! Check the link. It sounds fantastic.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    All classical educators should get that book from tODD’s company! Check the link. It sounds fantastic.


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