pronunciation

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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.