How to Pronounce Scientific Names

Taxonomic names, from species to kingdom, are traditionally derived from Latin or Latinized Greek. This practice is a hold-over from a time when Latin was internationally the common language of scholarship, allowing Renaissance scholars in Italy, Spain, France, England, Denmark, Germany, and so on, to read and understand each other's works. The tradition has been retained, in part, because Latin is a 'dead' language - that is, no longer evolving new semantic flavorings. As such, Latin words mean today more-or-less what they did hundreds of years ago. Contrast this with the English language, which is continually spawning new colloquialisms and subtle shades of cultural meaning. In a time of rapid cultural change, Latin offers a kind of comforting stability.

For many English-speaking people, Latin terms make for some complex, tough-to-pronounce names that can make biology seem rather intimidating. But many English-speaking non-biologists already use a lot more Latin names than they realize - most of us have no trouble with words like rhododendron, amphibian, pachyderm, and Tyrannosaurus rex. A few rules-of-thumb may help you get a handle on less familiar Latin-based words:

  1. "ch" (as in Carcharodon) is pronounced as a hard K
  2. "ae" (as in Lamnidae) is pronounced EE
  3. "ii" (as in Alopiidae) is pronounced EE-ih
  4. most vowels (including "y") are pronounced short rather than long (as in math, ethics, fish, box, bus, and cyst)

These four simple rules should enable you to pronounce a great many taxonomic names more-or-less correctly. (And if someone corrects your pronunciation, don't be discouraged: not everyone agrees on how Latin words should be pronounced, anyway.) Sound out unfamiliar words one syllable at a time, and make them your own. You'll surely be able to impress your friends in no time. But far more importantly you will have reduced the strangeness of taxonomic terms and thereby enhanced your ability to further your study of not only sharks, but of biology in general.

 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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