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SCIENTIFIC NAMES AND LATINPHOBIA

Birdwatchers are fortunate: not only is bird classification  much more advanced (and stable) than fish classification, but they also have the International Ornithological Union, which  has standardized the vernacular English names of birds.  Unfortunately, fishwatchers are climbing a much steeper learning curve.  Vernacular names of fishes vary from one ocean (or country) to another, and even within South Africa, one can find several different English (or Afrikaans) names for the same fish.

To overcome this problem, we would like to encourage  the avid student of fishes to learn their scientific names.   This will improve our communication when we talk and write about fish identification.  Some folks find the Latin names of fishes a daunting hurdle in speaking about particular species.  The purpose of this article is to dispel this irrational fear.

First, bear in mind that Latin is much easier to pronounce than English.  In English we can have one symbol (-ough) with 7 different sounds!  And we can have ten different symbols (s in sure, sci in conscience, se in nauseous, sh in ship, sch in schist, ti in motion, ci in suspicion, ce in ocean, ch in champagne, and xi in anxious) with the same consonant sound!

Now, with regard to Latinphobia, the neophyte (from the Greek, neos, new, young, recent; and phytos, plant) ichthyologist should also note the following:
 

· With our doubts about the sounds of various Greek letters and ancient accents (in the words of a noted Greek scholar), “... it is safe to say that no one could now pronounce a sentence of Greek so that it would have been intelligble to Demosthenes or Plato.”

· According to another scholar, no one knows definitely how the Romans pronounced Latin, and in many syllables it is quite impossible to say whether the vowel was long or short.

· In his excellent book, Composition of Scientific  Words, Roland Brown points out that “The tendency to adopt or naturalize Greek and Latin words, or new latinized compounds, in modern English has evolved departures from Roman pronunciation so that the sounds of some of the vowels and consonants now differ materially from those of classical Latin.  For example, c ... is now pronounced like s in many words, such as Caesar, civilization, acerbity, procession, and for most botanists [the genus name of oak trees] Acer”.

· And also from Brown: “Pronunciation is first of all a personal matter, because no two sets of vocal apparatus are exactly alike.  Persons are thus enabled to identifiy one another, even in darkness or over the telephone, by the timbre or overtone quality peculiar to their voices.  Superimposed on these fundamental peculiarities are the enunciation habits of the group acquired by the individual in infancy largely by imitation.  These habits are often so characteristic that they serve readily to identify the locale of the group.  Finally, in the course of their evolution, languages themselves develop distinctive, ingrained traits inheritable by all who speak those languages”.

· And Brown implicitly agrees with the suggestion (by another scholar) that when scientific terms derived from Greek, Latin, or other languages, occur in an English sentence, they should be pronounced as English words.


But, hang on, we are now back to square one; as some English syllables can have ten different pronunciations!?  If our computerized East Coast FishBase were up and running, and the all the Project members had access to it, we could solve this problem by including with the information for each species (in addition to a colour photo and distribution map) a digitized voice on the CD that would say in a Grahamstownian accent with an American twang: “This photo is an adult Epinephelus marginatus, also known as the yellowbelly rockcod or dusky grouper.”

So, until we have our FishBase up and running, I will follow Elaine’s (my wife’s) pragmatic rule for the pronunciation of scientific names: “When in doubt, spit it out!”  The following are some rough guidelines and examples of how the majority of ichthyologists pronounce  fish names.  (I’m sure my old highschool Latin teacher is now doing 78+ rpm in her grave.  Please forgive me, magistra?)

Let’s start with some examples from our Checklist of East Coast Fishes, Part 1 (enclosed with this Newsletter).

The letters c and ch when followed by a, i, l, o, n, r, and u are usually pronounced like k.
So Heptranchias sounds like Hep-tran-kias,
Notorynchus = Noto-rink-us,
Chlamydoselachus = Klamy-do-sela-kus,
Carcharhinus = Kar-ka-rhin-us,
amblyrhynchos = am-bly-rhinkos,
macrorhinus = makro-rhinus,
glauca = glau-ka,
leucolomatus = leuko-lomatus,
Eridacnis = Erid-aknis,
clavata = kla-vata,
Cheilinus = Kei-line-us.

But note that the letter c in the combinations cae, ce, ci and cy is (despite what most British scientists will tell you) sounded like s:
caeruleus = see-ru-leus,
Centrophorus = Sen-tro-phorus,
fasciatum = fassi-atum,
Rhinoceros = Rhi-no-seros,
cepedianus = sepedi-anus,
falciformis = falsi-formis,
Cephaloscyllium = Sephalo-syllium,
superciliosus = super-siliosus,
Heteronarce = Hetero-narsee.

The letter g is usually sounded like g in the English word “get” or the Latin word “griseus”, but in the combination gn, as in Gnatholepis, the g is silent (natho-lepis).

The letter p is sounded like p in the English word “pike” (as in Paragaleus), but the combination ph sounds like f as in philosophy or Physiculus (= Fy-sik-ulus); and in pt the p is silent, as in Pterois (= ter-row-is).

The letter i at the end of a word usually indicates the Latin genitive ending for a patronym in honor of a male person, as in Carcharhinus sealei, named for Alvin Seale, and pronounced “seali” with a long i (“eye”) sound at the end of the word.  Some patronyms have a double ii at the end (cuvierii), and this is pronounced as if it were a single i.  A fish named for a woman bears the Latin genitive  ae ending for females, as in Canthigaster smithae, named for Margaret Smith and pronounced “smithee”.

The letter x usually sounds the same as the x in the English word ox, as in Isurus oxyrinchus, the shortfin mako shark.  But when x is the first letter in a word, it sounds like Z: Xiphias (= Zifias) and Xyrictys (= Zir-iktees).

And, when it comes to names like “Mobula eregoodootenkee” [which is a scientific name that is evidently based on the local Hindi name for this mobulid ray], I won’t mind if someone  calls it the “longhorned mobula”.

Of course, for some well-known fishes, with widely accepted vernacular  names (e.g., bluefin tuna, yellowbelly rockcod, whale shark, great white shark, blue marlin, ribbon moray, etc), it makes sense to use the English name.  In fact, for some species whose scientific name has changed recently, like the raggedtooth shark (which has gone from Carcharias taurus to Eugomphodus taurus to Odontaspis taurus and is now back to Carcharias taurus) it is probably less confusing (at least in South Africa) to use “raggedtooth shark”, rather than the scientific name for this shark (even though the Aussies call it a “grey nurse shark” and it is known as the “sand tiger” in America).

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