Botanists agree to loosen Latin’s grip

Latin is a bit like a zombie: dead but still clamoring to get into our brains.

In one discipline, however, Latin just got a bit deader.

For at least 400 years, botanists across the globe have relied on Latin as their lingua franca, but the ardor has cooled. Scientists say plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names, but they have decided to drop the requirement that new species be described in the classical language. Instead, they have agreed to allow botanists to use English (other languages need not apply). In their scientific papers, they can still describe a newly found species of plant — or algae or fungi — in Latin if they wish, but most probably won’t.

“The new chatter is in chemicals and molecules,” said Laurence Dorr, one of three Latinists in the Smithsonian Institution’s botany department who would help their colleagues translate. “It was heading toward extinction,” said Warren Wagner, department chair.

The change, which took effect Jan. 1, is more than just academic. Smithsonian botanists alone might introduce as many as 100 new plant species a year, discovered either on their travels or in the national herbarium, a collection of 5 million dried specimens housed at the Natural History Museum. Globally, scientists discover 2,000 new species per annum. As many as one in five of the world’s plant species have yet to be identified, and not until they are named and known to the scientific community can they can be protected and studied further. “You can’t talk about it until that point,” said James Miller, vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden. “It’s not the end of knowing a species, it’s the beginning.”

Miller is a big fan of the relaxed rule, which, along with another measure allowing species to be published in electronic journals alone, will remove bottlenecks in the process of getting new flora out there.

When he published the discovery of a small tropical tree called Cordia koemarae, he had to write a Latin description that ran to 100 words and included: “Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticis.” Roughly translated: The tree hangs on to its leaves, which vary by size. The bigger leaf blades are elliptical.

“The bottom line is that only a tiny percentage of us really learn much Latin and are really capable of writing a grammatically correct description,” he said. “It’s an additional encumbrance.”

Botanists and horticulturists will continue to use the Latin scientific names for plants as part of their work. The same goes for the pretentious gardener who, trug in one hand, pruners in the other, can wax on about the Syringa (lilac), Salix (willow) or Solidago (goldenrod), et cetera.

Still longing for Latin

The Latin description rule was relaxed by a committee and ratified by delegates to the International Botanical Congress, which gathers every six years. The vote, held in July in Melbourne, Australia, was overwhelming in favor, said Miller and other attendees.

But it wasn’t unanimous. Roy Gereau, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden who opposed it, said the Latin requirement served an important role in preserving the link to botany’s academic past. The rule had been on the books since 1908, but Latin has been the language of international botanists since the Renaissance.

Zoologists dropped the Latin description rule years ago, though botanists point out that while there are only about 5,000 species of mammals on the planet, there are at least 400,000 plant species. Add insects to the animal kingdom mix, however, and you descend into a taxonomic Hades. If plants top half a million, “there are 14 times that many beetles,” Gereau said. “Insect museums seldom catalogue collections at the level of species.”

The learned plant men of the Babel of Europe talked to one another through their Latin texts, and even Latinized their own names. Carolus Clusius, the guy who brought tulips to the West, published the groundbreaking Rariorum Plantarum Historia in 1601. A century and a half later, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus codified taxonomy in Species Plantarum, giving science the system of Latin binomial nomenclature to catalogue species: Homo sapiens, Ginkgo biloba, Tyrannosaurus rex.

Gereau, a Latinist, argues that botanists still need to be versed in the classical language. “There are many works that are not translated that remain important to us that increasingly no one is learning to use,” he said.

Weeding out fraud

On a practical level, the rule was an obstacle to fraud, he said. The Latin requirement helped prevent the naming of bogus species because scientist-translators such as himself acted as gatekeepers, Gereau said. “When you think of the size of the trade in orchids or bromeliads, if you can name a new species and offer it for sale, you can make a hell of a lot of money” from eager collectors and breeders.

His colleague at the botanical garden in St. Louis, Nicholas Turland, supports the change but understands how the old rule worked against bad science. “There’s an awful lot of taxonomy done in orchids by people who are not professional taxonomists — some of it good, some of it not so good and some of it bad. There’s a fear that removing this requirement makes it easier for people to churn out new species that are not scientifically tenable,” he said. “I’m not really convinced Latin was a gatekeeper, more of a tedious obstacle to people trying to do science.”

Although botanical Latin paid homage to the great Roman plant chronicler, Pliny the Elder, it quickly evolved into a specialized, descriptive and scientifically precise language far removed from classical Latin. The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin, said Pliny would have understood the work of Clusius but not that of 19th-century botanical luminaries.

The language of DNA

The wry joke is that even with the diminished role of Latin, the argot used by English-speaking botanists might as well be Latin. In describing flower parts, they speak of “the corolla tubular with spreading lobes.” The familiar thick green leaf of the magnolia is described in one encyclopedia as “elliptic to ovate or subglobose, obtuse to short-acuminate, base attenuate, rounded or cuneate, stiffly coraceous.”

As botanists increasingly seek to deconstruct organisms at the microscopic level and through DNA sequencing, the vernacular descriptions become even more opaque, said Alain Touwaide, a researcher and Latinist at the Smithsonian who would translate for botanists.

Keeping the Latin description, he argued, would ironically make it more understandable. “To make these notions understood, you have to create Latin words that have an etymological root that renders the word self-explainable,” he said. The further loss of Latin “is a pity.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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