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Pronouncing botanical and Latin names

I know a fair bit about plants and their botanical Latin names, but half the time I get corrected when pronouncing them, and the corrected pronunciations vary from one person to another. What gives??


You are right in observing that there is variability in how plant names are pronounced. The Plant Answer Line librarian here at the Miller Library wrote an article on this topic, “Say What: Pronouncing Botanical Latin,” in the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2016.

See also the following essay, What’s in a Name?, by Susan Mahr of University of Wisconsin Horticulture. Here is an excerpt:
“Most languages evolve over time, so there really can’t be any truly ‘correct’ pronunciation, just different pronunciations at different times (and places). And with an increasingly mobile and global society, interactions with other cultures influence the way we speak. Thirty years ago, few Americans would say ‘CLEM-atis,’ but now so many have heard English garden lecturers say it that way, that they reject ‘cle-MAT-is’ as substandard – despite the fact Americans have been saying that for 150 years.

“There are ‘official’ ways to say Latin words. You can read the rules, but memorizing them may end up being more work than it’s worth. For gardeners, I think the most important rule is to pronounce every letter and in the correct order. Unlike English, with all those silent vowels and diphthongs and whatnot, just separate the word into syllables and say it like it sounds. You might want to say each syllable separately, then string them together so you don’t leave anything out or mix up the sounds (as people do when they pronounce ‘anemone’ as ‘anenome’). As long as you say all the letters, the listener should be able to figure out what you mean, even if your pronunciation differs from theirs.”

Fine Gardening magazine online has a pronunciation guide with phonetic spelling and audio clips, but even here, you may find that you have heard variant pronunciations from other trusted sources.

There are a number of useful books which provide guidelines for pronunciation, such as Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen Coombes (Timber Press, 1994). Keep in mind that the author is British, and his recommended pronunciations differ in some cases from American versions.

Ultimately, though, botanical Latin was never meant to be a spoken language with set pronunciation. The most important thing is to make yourself understood.