botanical books with illustrations of plants, old camera, old map

Stress on Which Syllable? Pronouncing Botanical Latin

There is a small scene in my novel Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey, in which two characters are talking about plants they’ve seen on a recent walk around the (fictitious) island on which the story is set. One of them rattles off several botanical names and asks whether he has pronounced them correctly. The other character (who is the narrator) responds by saying, “I must admit, I sometimes hesitate to say the Latin out loud. So often, there’s someone eager to jump in and correct one’s pronunciation. ‘No, my dear, the accent should fall on the first syllable.’ That sort of thing.”

That sort of thing probably occurs regularly in gatherings of serious gardeners, such as garden clubs and exhibitions. Most of my communication about plants happens on this blog, where all I have to worry about is spelling those sometimes lumpy botanical names. And italicizing them, of course.

Nevertheless, I sometimes find myself wondering about pronunciation. Like language in general, botanical Latin has its quirks. For example, many genus names are based on people’s surnames. Botanists’ names, I assume. Bergenia, Dahlia, Fuchsia, Mahonia. Lurking behind these pseudo-Latin monikers are dudes named Karl August von Bergen, Anders Dahl, Leonhart Fuchs, and Bernard McMahon.

But consider how those Latin genus names are usually pronounced: BerJEENia, DAYlia, FYOOshia. To be honest, I’m not sure whether the last one is MaHOnia or MahoNEEia, but I do know that Bernard’s surname was likely pronounced in a way that could be rendered as McMaan.

Maybe my suggested genus name pronunciations are not official, but only the way garden variety gardeners pronounce them. Maybe serious botanists simply add “-ia” to the correctly pronounced surnames? Somehow I doubt it, even though I don’t frequent gatherings of such individuals.

A few weeks ago, I attended an event at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific. There was a plant sale. Even though my garden is full to bursting, I actually bought two plants. One of them was labelled Tweedia caerulea. Wikipedia tells me the correct name is actually Oxypetalum coeruleum. I think I’ll stick to Tweedia, as it’s easier to pronounce. Now all I have to worry about is making sure the little plant survives the winter, as its native region is southern Brazil to Uruguay. Its flowers are an unusual shade of blue, and of course I’m a sucker for blue flowers.

Oxypetalum caeruleum, Tweedia caerulea
From Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

For those who fret about pronunciation, this article is somewhat reassuring: Pronouncing Botanical and Latin Names from the University of Washington.

Featured image from Pexels.

28 comments

  1. Your new flower is gorgeous. I had two Latin teachers who pronounced a number of words a different way. When questioned, the second one said as it was a dead language, the pronunciation was largely speculation. As a speaker with a regional accent, I quite liked not being able to be ‘wrong’ with Latin!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I never got involved with botanical taxonomy, but I sure did with termites, since I had to name the various types of “Xenotermites” found on the planet G. Gwidian.
    Since you’ve read all the books, you might be interested in this:
    http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com/search?q=taxonomy
    I made this chart, and it’s in the paperback of the sequel volume to the Ki’shto’ba series (“The Buried Ship at the End of the World”), but I never could figure out how to get it included in the ebook.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Jennifer. Hey–I tried to send you emails months ago, but they disappeared into the void. Maybe you could send me the correct address or an alternate via my Contact page on the blog.

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    1. I’ve realized that even though I think of plants in terms of their botanical names, I’m totally unfamiliar with the Latin names for birds and other creatures. I can imagine you had to cope with some unfamiliar ones while doing research for those books.
      I will check out that link!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In looking this over again, I discovered that I did include the text part in the Kindle and I presume in the Smashwords versions. It’s just the Table that I couldn’t figure out how to include. I was kind of impressed myself when I looked at it again! Working all that out wasn’t easy but I actually kind of enjoyed it. I was much sharper back then (ca. 2015) than I am now. At the moment I just had cataract surgery and am waiting to get new glasses, and I can’t see worth a whoop. Have to use a magnifying glass to read, although using the computer isn’t too bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What an unusual and beautiful shade of blue! The second word sounded familiar so I googled it. It seems to be derived from “caelum” (sky). There is a particular type of blue acrylic paint I often use – cerulean (dark sky) blue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Debra. If I find a plant attractive or interesting I like to find out what it is so I can consider adding it to the garden. Or maybe it’s just my cataloguing librarian brain still at work!

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