Latin Names

Print this entry

The 18th Century saw the development of a system of scientific name classification for all living things by the Swedish naturalist, Linne, C. (1707-78) whose name is usually given the Latin form Linnaeus. He gave a name for each group (Genus) and within that group a name for each species; hence this is referred to a binomial system. This double name system works well as it is understood worldwide and  avoids the frequently duplicated and confusing common names which not only have the same name for many different plants (eg. Christmas Bush) but also, in many cases, the multiple names given according to local dialects, areas and apparent relationship to other plants which bear no actual family relationship (eg. Blue Quandong, Blueberry Ash, Blueberry Fig as three of about eight common names for Elaeocarpis grandis which is not a quandong, Ash, Fig or related to any of those families).

The plant kingdom was divided into Angiosperms (all flowering plants) which were then subdivided eg. Monocotyledons and Dicotyledons

Monocotyledons have parallel venation in their leaves

Dicotyledons never have parallel venation in their leaves

Then families   eg. Moraceae, Myrtaceae, Sapindaceae. All families have the ending ‘-aceae’. The last two letters ‘-ae’ are the Latin ending indicating the feminine plural form as well as the feminine singular possessive (= of_____).

Then Genus

                                    which is masculine, usually ending in ‘-us’, eg. Ficus

                                    or feminine with the ending ’-a’, eg. Acacia

                                    or neuter gender with the ending ‘-um’ eg. Dendrobium respectively

                                    (or in single form).

Then species

Which for the masculine, singular possessive form is eg. fraseri (=of Fraser)

               ’’    ’’  feminine          ’’          ’’             ’’    ’’                  victoriae(= of Victoria) and

               ’’    ’’  neuter               ’’          ’’             ’’    ’’                 beckleri(= of Beckler) or

               ’’    ’’  neuter               ’’          ’’            ’’   ’’                   fairfaxii(= of Fairfax). This form often came about in an attempt to form a Latin word from one which quite obviously is not of Latin origin. It was hypothesized that if Fairfax were to have been a Latin word its first person form (subject of a sentence) would have been Fairfaxinus or if an adjective to agree with Dendrobium then fairfaxium would be the appropriate form to agree with the neuter gender. In both cases (Fairfaxinus or fairfaxium), its was the singular possessive form which was required so Fairfaxii becomes correct!

The Linnaean system of classification required that all plants (and animals) have both genus and species as their identifying name; hence it is described as a binomial system. The species name usually refers to a particular feature of the plant, its natural location or is named in honour of a particular person or after the one who recorded it, some examples follow:

Backhousia citriodora where citriodora refers to the scent of citrus (citri = citrus, odora = scent). Lucky Mr. Backhouse had many sweet smelling plants named after him as he has a complete Genus bearing his name, but note that Backhouse has been converted to a Latin name with a singular, feminine ending and the species name agrees with it in both number and gender as both words end in ‘-a’.

Elaeocarpus eumundi being ‘of eumundi’. Strictly, one would expect that this should have been eumundis to agree with eleaocarpus or eumundii to properly indicate “of eumundi”, the area which comprises its natural habitat. (eumundi is of course an aboriginal word).  Acacia victoriae understandably had the spelling of victoriae as the tree was named in honour of Queen Victoria.  And not of the state of Victoria (as this plant is native to Queensland and the Northern Territory).I am indebted to Mr Paul Forster, of the Queensland Herbarium for research into the naming of citrus garrawary (including a 1912 American reference) as it is named after north Queensland botanist who collected many plant specimens for identification and recording. (The often seen but misspelt garrwayae is incorrect because it is NOT named after Mrs Garraway).

Now the examples are legion, where mistakes were made in having the Latin adjectival form, for species agree with the form for genus in both number (singular ands plural instead of both singular) and gender. Even so (there is good understanding around the world as to which plant is being referred to even if the Latin species ending is not technically correct. A good reference book by Debenham, C. The Language of Botany,  Society for Growing Australian Plants, is one where the author has gone to considerable trouble to ensure that the correct Latin form is used in botanical examples.

Then there are many botanical names in Greek-derived Latin to further confuse and complicate the subject.

Now to a few notes on pronunciation. Many Latin words formed the basis for later words in French, Spanish , German and English.  The Australian/English use of long syllable sounding diphthongs in words like  bite and plate easily givers false impression as to the Latin pronunciation where most vowels were short. The current English word epicenter gives the same Latin short sound for the first two ‘e’ sounds and the ‘i’. The usual split of syllables required the following syllable to commence with a consonant and not a vowel. Thus ‘i’ as in ‘it’ or ‘bit’ and ‘Latin’ is pronounced ’la’- ‘tin’ and not ’lat’n as is usually heard. C was always hard like a ‘k’. So the pronunciation of ficus should be ‘fi’-‘kus’ with the short ‘i’ and ‘u’ sounds. Easy really, isn’t it? 

Where there were adjoining consonants in each syllable, the pronunciation was base on simply splitting them, as this smoothed the flow of speech, and added colour and fluency to the classical poets’ works as they were read and spoken, e.g. in English,  the word ‘planting’ would be pronounced in Latin  as ‘plan’-‘ting’, but still pronounced as one word.

So an easy botanical example is eu-ca-lyp-tus.

Often longer vowels sounds were represented by two letters, e.g. ‘ae’ pronounced as if ‘ee’ as in ‘feet’. So now look at ‘pediatrician’ as an obvious English word of Latin origin and ponder the different pronunciation for ‘ia’ within the same word!