As of this week, taxonomic descriptions need not be written in Latin. But wait a moment – contrary to what some news reports have implied, the names of plants and animals actually still do need to be written in Latin (or, Latin with an expanded Greek vocabulary, with some loan words from English cleverly snuck in). The only things that change are the official descriptions of new species. These ‘descriptions’ are a few paragraphs that detail things like how many toes a sloth has, or whether a plant is ‘herbaceous’ or not. All known species are currently described in Latin officially (with translations generally available in major languages), and none of these current Latin descriptions will change as a result of the new standards – the change in rules only applies to new, unknown species.
But does that mean the field of taxonomy is ‘Ditching Latin’, as the headlines say?
Minime! Not in the least!
Has anyone here ever read a taxonomic description in English? Of all the forms of English writing, taxonomic descriptions have just about the highest density of Latin and Greek words. It’s so thick with technical Latinate terms that it almost might as well be in Latin anyway, from the standpoint of non-taxonomists.
As an example, this is the description of the Box-Leaf Wattle, Acacia buxifolia A.Cunn., written in 1825:
Shrub to 4m high. Branchlets rarely pruinose, glabrous. Phyllodes oblanceolate to narrowly elliptic or narrowly oblong-elliptic with the adaxial margin often straight, 1–3 cm long, usually 2–8 mm wide, l:w = 3–6, acute to obtuse, with normally central mucro, thin to coriaceous, green to glaucous, glabrous or sparsely ciliolate near base; midrib not prominent; lateral nerves obscure or absent; gland sometimes absent, rarely 2, lowermost 3–10 mm above pulvinus. Inflorescences racemose; raceme axes usually 1–4.5 cm long and glabrous; peduncles 2–5 mm long, usually glabrous; heads globular, 7–29-flowered, golden. Flowers 5-merous; sepals united. Pods narrowly oblong, straight or curved, to 7 cm long, 5–7 mm wide, firmly chartaceous, sometimes pruinose, glabrous. Seeds (subsp. buxifolia) longitudinal, oblong to ovate, 4–4.5 mm long, slightly shiny, black; aril clavate.
Did you catch that? This is what a taxonomical description looks like when written in English. It’s a far cry from what some news reporters have imagined. Contrary to what Harry Mount said in the Telegraph, words like ‘oleraceus’ and ‘ramulosus’ are not going to be Anglicised into ‘used as a vegetable’ and ‘twiggy’. They will be rendered ‘oleraceus’ and ‘ramulose’.
The taxonomic world is not so stupid as to abandon all its Latin terms just because it doesn’t have to write in Latin prose. These words – pruinose, glabrous, pulvinus – are cemented into the technical jargon of the field, just as much as terms like malaria and tuberculosis are fixed in the medical world.
I will admit – I found it very cool that official descriptions of species had to be written out in Latin before being translated into modern languages, even up to this day and age. And I am sad that there probably won’t be any more taxonomic descriptions fully written out in the Latin language (that is, with Latin grammar, rather than just the vocabulary).
But I would probably see this new rule as making something official that had already been going on for a long time. Taxonomists have probably been writing their definitions out in English first, and then having to wait for some Latin-knowing faculty member to translate it for the sake of the formality, and mostly using the English translation afterwards. If you don’t know the actual Latin language, Latin prose descriptions would probably be seen as an unnecessary burden and chore.
One thing is for certain, though. Latin has cast an incredibly long shadow, far beyond its time, and we can only barely get our heads around how much of it has already been absorbed into the language of science. Words like chartaceous, adaxial, racemose, and clavate are practically irreplaceable now that they are entrenched in the scientific lexicon. Far from being ‘ditched’, Latin has been immortalised in the taxonomic community. Latin terms, like ancient boundary stones, continue to define and delineate our understanding of the natural world. Nonne mirabile? Ain’t it wonderful?