Am I the only one with problems with how to pronounce the Latin names for plants?
Last fall I was at a nursery and noticed a gorgeous stand of grasses in their demonstration garden. What was it, I asked?
“JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf purpurea,” the woman said.
I stared at her for a couple seconds. I’m sure my jaw was dropped and I looked pretty stupid. I worked backwards from the part I recognized, “purpurea,” and finally understood that she’d just told me that the plants were Aristida purpurea, purple three-awn.
To her credit she hadn’t actually said “JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf” for the genus name. Instead it was a very flat, American-style pronunciation that came out something like “Uh-RIS-tuh-duh.” I’d seen the name on paper a lot before that moment, but I’d never heard someone pronounce it. All along I was holding a very different sound in my head, something more like “Ah-ree-STEE-dah.”
In my undergraduate years studying music I was required to sing in the chorus. Two of the pieces we sang, Bach’s B-minor mass and Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes del Confessore, were in Latin. With Ancient Latin being a thoroughly dead language, Singer’s Latin–basically Latin sung as if it were Italian–was what I’d learned.
With the air tense with misunderstanding and purple three-awn blowing in the wind behind me, American Botanical Latin so rudely came face to face against my Singer’s Latin. Who was right?
I’d probably guess both of us and no one. Botanical Latin over the years has been studded with plant names honoring people and places whose names contain letters and sounds you’d never encounter old-school Latin. (Oerstedella schweinfurthiana, anyone?) And who’s to say pronouncing Latin as if it were Italian makes sense? Scholars now say that modern Shakespearean English is pretty far removed from the original Elizabethan pronunciations. It stands to reason that modern Italian is much further separated than that from its Latin source.
So, really, when you come down to it, we all talk with accents. And sometimes, to make ourselves better understood, we have to adapt to the ways the people around us say things.
Left: The plant that started all this, Aristida purpurea, photographed by Stan Shebs, from the Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license [ source ].