Pronunciation of botanical names

Jane McGary
Sun, 08 Dec 2002 11:56:30 PST
Mary Wise wrote:
>Would there be anyone on this list who would be willing to guide me through
>the uncharted waters of correct pronunciation of bulb names.  Everyone seems
>to say things  a little differently and there is  people out there who make
>it a point to correct ! others while sounding as though they are putting
>words through a mangle themselves :)) .  I for one would truly appreciate
>some clarification on some of the more difficult names : Leucocoryne for
>example,  I have heard  so many different versions LOL  it is hard to choose
>!!!!!   :)


At last, a question that I am actually qualified to answer!

Some general gardening reference books suggest pronunciations, and many of
the more common names can be found in a large English dictionary. However,
most linguists would tell people, "If the person you're talking with
understands what you are talking about, your pronunciation is correct

Botanical names can be considered "loan words" in the modern languages of
the world, and many of them are still in the process of become
"naturalized" (in language, that means they are being changed by speakers
to conform to the sound system of their language). The sound patterns of
languages and of the dialects of a given language differ among themselves,
so the pronunciation of botanical names varies from country to country, too. 

For example, British English speakers tend to place the stress on a
different syllable of a long loan word than American English speakers do
(antepenultimate for the former, penultimate for the latter). There is a
great deal of variation on where word stress gets placed, and only a real
pedant would quibble about it. (For example,  we pedants say "DOdecaTHEon"
because the word contains two roots, 'twelve' and 'gods'.) Many of the more
common plant names are given in any large English dictionary, with their
pronunciation in the dialect to which the dictionary pertains, including
word stress.

You can pronounce the vowels in the same way that they are said in more
commonly known loan words from Latin and Greek. Certain consonants are
pronounced in ways that approximate their sounds in the Latin and Greek
sources. Thus, ch is k as in 'key', and j is y as in 'yes'. The letter c
follows the pronunciation rules typical in English, so that we say
"nar[s]issus" instead of "nar[k]issus". Different rules are followed in
German, French, and other European languages; as a result, Europeans on
plant tours in North America sometimes need an interpreter to understand
what botanical names are being said to them!

One key to saying botanical names is to make sure you understand what the
syllables are and say all of them in the right order. Look at the way the
word is spelled and separate it into syllables. Say each syllable
separately, then string them together. This way you will not mix up the
sounds (as people do when they pronounce "anemone" as "anenome") or leave
anything out.

To take the example Mary mentioned, "leucocoryne," the syllables are
leu-co-co-ry-ne. In American pronunciation, the "eu" sounds like the vowel
in "too"; in British, it would probably sound more like the vowel in
"view". Both the c's are "hard" [k].  The y tends to sound like "eye",
though some speakers, especially British, may give it the sound of the i in
"bit". The final e has the sound of the ee in "meet", just as it does in
"anemone". The stress is likely to be placed on "ry", and here the
Americans have the approval of the pedants, because the stress of the
Classical Greek word "coryne" 'club' is on that syllable too. (The name
means 'white club' and refers to the stamens.) A British speaker, however,
might prefer to stress the preceding syllable, leucoCORyne (the lack of
stress on the y "shortens" it, as mentioned above).

There is no need to be anxious about one's pronunciation of botanical
names. Some of the most exalted plantspersons in the world use what we
kindly call "idiolectal" pronunciations. That doesn't mean "the speech of
idiots"--it means a variant used by only one or a few persons. 

I am fascinated by the way plant-name pronunciations diffuse through the
gardening world, which represents a good case of what sociolinguists call a
"community of practice". Thirty years ago, you would not have heard many
Americans say "CLEM-atis," but now they have all heard so many English
garden lecturers say it that they reject "cleMATis", which Americans have
been saying for 150 years, as substandard. Maybe I'll write a paper on it

Jane McGary
NW Oregon
Editor, Rock Garden Quarterly, AND Editorial Associate, Language in Society

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