Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘nomenclature

Brief thoughts on the decline of Latin and Greek as a scientific languages

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When I first, as a child, learned of the use Latin and Greek names for various plants, animals, and whatnot, it was explained to me that this was done to (a) ensure that there was a name that scientists speaking different languages could use and still be understood by each other, (b) still keep the names in a single language.

I am far from certain that this explanation is correct: More likely, the likes of Linnaeus simply started a tradition based on Latin as the then “science language” for his extensive classifications,* which was kept long after Latin lost ground to modern languages.

*Just like I prefer to write in English over Swedish—why not use the language more likely to be understood?

Still, the purported idea is quite sound: Using a single language allows for greater consistency and enables those so interested to actually learn that single language in order to make identification of the item behind the name that much easier;* and Latin has the advantage of lacking** potential for conflict (as might have been the case if English and French or Mandarin and Japanese were pitted against each other).

*Indeed, even a limited knowledge can be a great help, e.g. by knowing a few commonly occurring suffixes and prefixes.

**Or should do so in any sane era: Some politically correct fanatics apparently consider anything relating to “Western Culture” something to be condemned in a blanket manner. Nothing is certain, except for death, taxes, and human stupidity.

Unfortunately, the scientists of old did not stick to Latin, often turning to Greek. (This includes the names of many (most?) dinosaurs.) However this situation was still reasonably tolerable.

Then things started to get out of hand: Over the last few decades names have increasingly been coined in any locale language. For instance, this text was prompted by the recent discovery of the dinosaur genus Ledumahadi—apparently named “a giant thunderclap at dawn”* in Sesotho

*The silliness and apparent lack of “scientificity” of the meaning, however, has little to do with the language. Dinosaurs have been given similarly silly names from the early days of scientific attention (and many less silly names for extinct animals are obscure through e.g. referring to the shape of a tooth). In contrast, many of Linnaeus names could draw directly on existing Latin names for at least the genus (as e.g. with “homo sapiens”—“homo” being the Latin word for human).

Going by Wikipedia, Sesotho has some five or six million native speakers—considerably less than Swedish today and an even smaller proportion of the world population than Sweden in the days of (my fellow Swede) Linnaeus*. If Linnaeus picked Latin over Swedish back then, how can we justify picking Sesotho over both Latin and English today? The idea is contrary to reason.

If someone were to argue that Latin and Greek, specifically, had grown impractical due to the reduced knowledge among today’s scientists, I might have some sympathies. However, if we concluded that they should go, the reasonable thing to do would be to opt for English as the sole language, thereby ensuring the largest global understandibility. If not English, then some other, truly major language, e.g. Mandarin*, Hindi*, or Spanish should have been considered. Sesotho is useless as single language, and not using a single language will end with names that appear entirely random. It will usually even be impossible to know what language a name is in, without additional research, making it that much harder to find out the meaning.

*Here additional thought might be needed on how the names should be written. (Original writing system? Transliterated to the Latin alphabet? Otherwise?)

For those interested in “local” names, there is always the possibility of introducing an everyday name for the local language: Dinosaurs have normally been known by their scientific names even in the general population, but there is no actual law that this must be the case. Call the Ledumahadi “Ledumahadi” in Sesotho and use a Latin or Greek translation* as the scientific name and the default in other languages.

*My limited knowledge does not allow me to make a suggestion.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm