You say tomato . . .

The use of Latin names in horticulture can seem daunting, with many people unsure of the correct...
The use of Latin names in horticulture can seem daunting, with many people unsure of the correct pronunciation. take for example, pronunciation of the scientific name of pine trees (pinus). In English-speaking countries, it is pronounced "pie-nus", while southern Europeans, where the pronunciation is closer to the original Latin, they say "pee-nus". Photo: Getty Images
Botanical Latin comes from a plethora of other languages with a multitude of pronunciations. So say them how you like, writes James Wong.

For newbie gardeners, learning about horticulture can seem daunting, especially when it comes to that great sticking point: Latin names. I've frequently heard confident, experienced amateurs hesitate, even stutter, when using them.

To me, as a botanist, this is a huge shame as it acts as a barrier, excluding many from the joy gardening can bring - and the worst thing is it's totally unnecessary. Here's the thing: there is no "correct" pronunciation of botanical Latin. Horticultural snobs look away now.

First, Latin really is a dead language. To be blunt, there are simply no citizens of Ancient Rome around any more to correct you. Even if there were, the empire was so vast that the regional differences in pronunciation would have been so great that any one "correct" pronunciation would be largely arbitrary.

Are these dahlias "dah-lias" or "day-lias"? Photo: Gillian Vine
Are these dahlias "dah-lias" or "day-lias"? Photo: Gillian Vine
In fact, botanical Latin isn't "real" Latin at all, but a cocktail of Latin, Ancient Greek and a plethora of other languages from Russian to Mandarin that have been absorbed into it for good measure. A sort of scientific Esperanto, if you will, which was invented in the 17th century to act as a universal naming system anyone in the world could use. It might not seem like it, but the whole point of the Latin is to be inclusive, not the opposite.

This means there is a massive variation in how these same names are pronounced across the world, all of them correct. If you need any assurance of this, ask a Spanish or Italian person to tell you the scientific name of pine trees (pinus). In English-speaking countries people tend to say "pie-nus", while southern Europeans (whose pronunciation is closer to the original Latin) say "pee-nus". The source of many a schoolboy giggle.

The same thing happens even among speakers of the same language, with my American colleagues pronouncing dahlias "dah-lia" and not "day-lia" as is more common in the United Kingdom. Ironically, for the plant named after the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl, the US pronunciation is more correct, much to the chagrin of any posh horticulturist. The moral of the story is simple: say Latin names however you want. You are more likely to be understood than if you use common names because that is the point of scientific labels.

Any one plant can have dozens of common names even in the same language. Take courgette, zucchini, summer squash and marrow - all different names for the same species in English.

To add more confusion, the same common name can also be applied to dozens of unrelated species. For example, the word "pepper" can be used for at least 20 different plants, none of which are actually pepper. Latin names cut through the confusion, giving each plant a single, universal name wherever in the world you are, whoever you are talking to. And thank goodness, too!

Still worried? Even Church Latin differs from classical Latin in pronunciation, the latter following modern Italian rules. So a visit from the Pope to your front garden shouldn't phase you. - Guardian News and Media


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