um, how do you pronounce that?

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.

Aristida purpureaLeft: 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 ].

11 thoughts on “um, how do you pronounce that?”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Having never really exchanged latin plants names with anyone I havent come across this problem but I can see how given the distance of continents and eras there could be variations on pronunciation.

  2. Great post! I’m constantly labelled as a ‘Hoiti-hort’ because I use botanical latin when I discuss the plants in my garden. Its still pretty easy to masacre a name…. I remember purchasing a plant based purely on the botanica ….peltoboykinia watenabai! I still prefer this over the plethora of ‘common’ names out there, that seem to be generational or geographically driven.

  3. Botanical latin drives me nuts. It doesn’t even follow the rules of real latin, which is bad enough. Numerous horticulturalists have told me there isn’t necessarily a definitive pronunciation for a plant. I tell this to my clients to reassure them they don’t have to be intimidated by using latin names since they can’t get them wrong, but I still feel like an idiot when I pronounce a name differently than the person I’m talking to. (and am I the only one who says pit TOS pur um and not pit oh SPOR um?)

  4. Helen, as my interest go farther afield I find that common names fail me more and more. The local native plant folks use the latin quite a bit, and then there’s the orchid world, where I spent a bit of time–so many thousand uncommon species, and common names for almost none of them. A latin-phobic person’s nightmare!

    Teza: peltoboykinia watenabai!!! I am amazed at that name! How could you not buy it? It looks terrifying to pronounce at first, but if you break it down, it starts to come together. Don’t ask me to say it three times real fast, though!

    Tina, yes, aren’t they? People studying diction should just be given a few botanical catalogs.

    Susan, well you’re the only one I’ve run into who’d pronounce pittospurum quite that way, but hey you’re one of a kind! I like your attitude of not calling out the latin police every time someone might choose a different pronunciation.

  5. JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf”
    I use latin names as I can then look the plant up to find more about it. I have come up with a few odd pronunciations myself!

  6. Oh, they say no one pronounces those latin names correctly, except the gardener him or herself. ; ) It IS always funny to hear someone else say them, though…and then quickly sift through the pronunciation cards in your head to see which sounds most similar.

    For me, the most grating was an absolutely wonderful nurserywoman who’s brain had long transposed the letters in the word for leaves so that she always referred to it as FOILage. Grrr. : )

  7. LOL lovely post James, I think some of the difficulty with the Latin names is not having a clue how to pronounce them – if you have only read them in a book – and if you are dyslexic, well ….
    I was thrown out of Latin class at school for only getting 3% in an exam.

  8. I’ve come across this problem quite a bit. Occasionally I will look up a name in an online dictionary for the correct pronunciation. But even that doesn’t assure you are going to pronounce the name in a way that other people will know what you’re talking about…

  9. I couldn’t imagine trying to deal with the plant world without some sort of classification system, but boy it would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with some fo these tongue-twisters. Still, I guess it’s better than assigning plant species numbers or something TOTALLY incomprehensible…”The lovely #838,301,382-75A has delicate foliage and orange flowers that remind you of the #836,300,761-61C plants that your grandmother grew…”

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