Pronouncing Botanical Names

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20160316English.jpgImpressed when a guest speaker rolls off a complicated botanical name as if it were the easiest thing in the world? A lot of gardeners are terrified of pronouncing such dauntingly long names. “What if I get it wrong?” they think.

Well, here’s some good news. There really is no wrong way to pronounce a botanical name. As long as you pronounce all the letters in the right order, you’re doing fine. Where you put the stress, or whether you pronounce a hard c or a soft c, is of very little importance.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, no one knows how Latin was really pronounced. Neither how individual letters were pronounced nor on which syllable the stress lay. Yes, British Latin scholars have their way of pronouncing Latin, but that differs from how American Latin scholars pronounce it. And you’d think the Italians, the Spanish and the French would know better than anyone else how to pronounce Latin, given they speak Latin languages, but each of them pronounces Latin very differently… and certainly nothing at all like Brits and Americans.

Secondly, although gardeners often refer to “Latin names” (mea culpa, but I’m trying to correct myself!), botanical names aren’t really Latin at all. Certainly some words are from Lain, but many are from classical Greek, others are a mixture of Latin and Greek, while still others are based on the local language of the region where the plant was discovered. Why give yourself a headache over how Latins might have pronounced szechuanensis (meaning from the Chinese province of Sichuan) or boliviensis (from Bolivia)? They never heard either term.

Also, many botanical names are honorifics, names given to honor someone, perhaps the plant’s discoverer or an eminent botanist. Examples include Washingtonia, Rudbeckia, and Tradescantia. You can bet the average Latin speaker would have just as much difficulty pronouncing those names as you do. (There wasn’t even a w in the classical Latin alphabet, so Washingtonia would have really thrown them!)

Would you like an example? I’ve heard the word Thymus, for the garden herb thyme, pronounced multiple ways, all by botanists and serious horticulturists. TYE-mus, TEE-mus, TYE-moose, TEE-moose, THY-mus, and THEE-moose are just a few I’ve noted. I’m sure there are others. If authorities can’t agree on how to pronounce a word, why should you worry?

Just Pronounce All the Letters

So, here is the secret of pronouncing botanical names: just pronounce all the letters as best you can and say it with authority and you’ll be fine. If anyone quibbles, take pride in the fact that they are wrong and you are right. If you feel you must, say ‘There is no right or wrong way to pronounce botanical names.” Just pointing that out ought to shut them up.

I often lecture to gardening groups and admit that I pronounce botanical names with a distinct French Canadian accent. Sometimes I can hear audience members whispering to their neighbor “he said mar-i-TYE-ma instead of mar-I-ti-ma” (for maritima). I just carry on. Why should I care? I’m the one with the mike!

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