Including Scientific Names of
Plants and Animals
by Peter Ommundsen
Latin biological names in English speech are usually
pronounced with English letter sounds. For example,
virus is pronounced "vye-rus" in English, but would have been pronounced
"weeros" in the Latin of ancient Rome. An Anglo-Latin pronunciation has
been in use for centuries, and incorporates features of late Roman dialects that differ
from classical Latin .
A current book showing pronunciation, meaning, and derivation of many scientific Latin taxonomic names of
North American wildlife,
plus a discussion of the history of pronunciation,
is Lexicon of British Columbia Mammals. Click
- RULES FOR THE ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION OF BIOLOGICAL LATIN:
(Also see References )
- Several authors have identified rules that describe the traditional
English pronunciation. Usage varies among individuals and continues to evolve, but
the descriptive rules serve as a convenient pronunciation benchmark.
- Letter Sounds:
- Letter sounds are as in English words (and therefore vary with dialect).
- The digraphs AE and OE are treated as the letter E.
- LONG E as in me, we, be: anaemia, caecum, aether,
chamaeleon, larvae, vertebrae,
foetus, amoeba, phoenix.
- SHORT E as in met, wet, set: aesthetic, aestivate,
aestuary haemorrhage, oesophagus, oestrogen.
- Note the AE ending in group names: dog family, Canidae,
("CAN-id-ee" not "caniday"), rose family, Rosaceae ("ro-SAY-see-ee"), cat subfamily,
felinae ("fe-LINE-ee"), olive tribe, oleeae ("ol-EE-ee-ee"), etc.
- [AE and OE are often now written simply as E: anemia,
fetus, ameba, estrogen.]
- C or G preceding AE or OE is pronounced as though followed by E:
- Caesar = "seesar"
- caecum = "seekum"
- coelom = "seelom"
- algae = "aljee"
- CH is pronounced as K: chorus, echo, chrysanthemum.
- TH as in thorax, thymus, thuja ("THOO-ja")
- A final vowel is always voiced, as in flora, hero, Apollo.
- fungi = "FUNJ-eye," i as in alibi
- cocci = "COCKS-eye," i as in alibi
- ovale = "oh-VAY-lee," e as in Simile, Daphne, hyperbole, anemone, Aphrodite, Chloe
- difficile = "dif-ISS-il-ee," (as in the bacterial species name Clostridium difficile, C. difficile -"see dif-ISS-il-ee"), e as in Daphne, hyperbole, anemone, Aphrodite, Chloe
- stapes = "STAY-peez" e as in Achilles, meninges, diabetes
- Some initial consonants are silent when followed by a consonant.
- pterosaur = "TER-o-saur"
- pseudopod = "SOO-do-pod"
- pneuma = "NEW-ma"
- gnathous = "NATH-ous"
- phthegma = "THEG-ma"
- chthamalus = "THAM-al-us"
- ctenoid = "TEN-oid"
- mnium = "NY-um"
- tmema = "MEE-ma"
- Stress and Vowel length
- English pronunciation conserves the classical Roman accent position, but
vowel length rules are unique, and are much more regular than those of classical Latin.
NOTE: Traditional syllable division points may be modified on this page
to better phoneticize the words.
- 1. Words of two syllables are stressed on the first syllable:
- Femur ="FE-mur"
- Sinus = "SI-nus"
- Rosa = "RO-sa"
- (a) The vowel of the first syllable is short if followed by two or more consonants:
- Comma (o as in cot) [Compare to coma, with one m, below]
- Fossa (o as in cot)
- Hosta (o as in cot)
- Rattus (a as in cat)
- Vespa (e as in met)
- Septum (e as in met)
- Cistus (i as in mit)
- (b) The vowel of the first syllable is long if followed by a single consonant:
- Coma (o as in go) [Compare to comma, with double-m, above]
- Ovis (o as in go)
- Rosa (o as in go)
- Crocus (o as in go)
- Ramus (a as in gate)
- Fagus (a as in gate)
- Canis (a as in gate)
- Badis (a as in gate)
- Salix (a as in gate)
- Felis (e as in me)
- Femur (e as in me)
- Sedum (e as in me)
- Brevis (e as in me)
- Lepus (e as in me)
- Iris (i as in hi)
- Pinus (i as in hi)
- Plica (i as in hi)
- 2. Words of more than 2 syllables:
- (a) are stressed on the next to last syllable IF:
- the vowel of that syllable is followed by two or more consonants (making the vowel short).
- Maxilla = "mac-ZILL-a"
- Patella = "pa-TELL-a"
- Chlorella = "Klo-RELL-a"
- Lamella = "la-MELL-a"
- Medulla = "med-ULL-a"
- Laterallus = "lat-er-AL-us" (compare to lateralis, single l, below.)
- Tyrannus = tir-ANN-us" (compare to montanus, single n, below.)
- Narcissus = "nar-SIS-sus"
- Canadensis = "ca-na-DEN-sis"
- Macrophyllum = "mac-ro-FILL-um"
- (b) are stressed on the next to last syllable IF:
- the vowel is long (or transliterates to a Latin
long vowel, for example, Greek eta and omega), including some digraphs.
- (Applies to many Latin inflectional suffixes: americanus, lateralis,
- Ornatus = "or-NAY-tus"
- Pectoralis = "pec-to-RAY-lis"
- Lateralis = "lat-er-AY-lis" (Compare to laterallus, double-l, above.)
- Montanus = "mon-TAY-nus" (Compare to tyrannus, double-n, above.)
- Maculata = "mac-you-LAY-ta"
- Brachialis = "bray-kee-AY-lis"
- Umbellata = "um-bell-LAY-ta"
- Foramen = "fo-RAY-men"
- Lupinus = "lu-PIE-nus"
- Alpinus = "al-PIE-nus"
- Bovinae = "bov-EYE-nee"
- Homininae = "hom-in-EYE-nee"
- Hominini = "hom-in-EYE-nye"
- Hominina = "hom-in-EYE-na"
- Equisetum = "ek-wi-SEE-tum"
- Ctenopoma = "ten-op-OH-ma"
- Oenothera = "en-o-THEE-ra"
- Ureter = "you-REE-ter"
- Masseter = "ma-SEE-ter"
- Australopithecus = "Aus-tral-oh-pith-EE-cus"
- Duodenum = "du-oh-DEE-num"
- Chimaera = "ky-MEE-ra" [ae digraph]
- Amoeba = "am-EE-ba" [oe digraph]
- Haliaetus = "hal-ee-EET-us" [ae digraph]
- (c) are stressed on the third to last syllable if 2a and 2b do not apply.
- Hyperbole = "Hi-PER-bol-ee"
- Rhinocerus = "rhi-NAW-ser-us"
- Esophagus = "es-OFF-ag-us"
- Geophagus = "jee-OFF-ag-us"
- Euphagus = "YOOF-ag-us"
- Eupoda = "YOOP-od-a"
- Bicolor = "BICK-ol-or"
- Archilochus = "ark-ILL-ok-us"
- Pardalis = "PAR-dal-is"
- Helostoma = "hel-OST-oh-ma"
- Stomata = "STOM-at-ah"
- Echinodermata = "e-ki-no-DER-mah-ta"
- Parenchyma = "pa-REN-kim-ma"
- Streptomyces = "strep-TOM-is-eez"
- Scleropages = "skler-OP-aj-ees"
- Troglodytes = "tro-GLOD-it-ees"
- Haematopus = "he-MAT-op-us"
- Alcyon = "AL-see-on"
- Clematis = "CLEM-ma-tis"
- Saccharomyces = "sac-ka-ROM-is-eez"
- Difficile = "dif-ISS-il-ee"
- Oxalis = "OX-al-is"
- Monticola = "mon-TIC-ol-a"
- Pterophyta = "ter-OFF-fit-a"
- Pterodroma = "ter-ODD-dro-ma"
- Bryophyta = "bry-OFF-fit-ta"
- Gastropoda = "gas-TROP-od-a"
- Copepoda = "co-PEP-od-a"
- Disporum = "DIS-po-rum"
- Chiroptera = "ky-ROP-ter-a"
- Epiphysis = "e-PIF-is-is"
- Cerebrum = "SER-eb-rum"
- Spermophilus = "sper-MOF-il-us"
- Sylvilagus = "sil-VIL-ag-us"
- Spilogale = "spi-LOG-al-ee"
- Hemionus = "hem-EYE-on-us"
- Hernandieae = "her-nand-EYE-ee-ee"
- Neotoma = "ne-OTT-om-a"
- Cyclamen = "SICK-la-men"
- The stressed vowel is short except: if U as in
humerus, numeral, jugular ; if
preceding a vowel (hemionus, Gaviidae); or
if as in media, splenius, radius, planaria, phobia, mammalia, cepacia,
rosaceae etc. (Stressed vowel - A, E or O
- followed by a single consonant, then two or more vowels, of
which the first is E, I or Y.) And note the "SH" sound
that may be given to c and t followed by i: dementia, motion, Botia =
"bosha", acacia = "akaysha", species = "speeshees".
- Some double consonants (and "mute" consonants followed by l or r)
are treated as single consonants (e.g., TH, PH, CH, BR, DR, TR, PL, QU):
- Sacrum - "SAY-crum" = Rule 1b rather than 1a.
- Zebra = "ZEE-bra" = Rule 1b rather than 1a.
- Glabrum ="GLAY-brum" = Rule 1b rather than 1a.
- Mitral = "MY-tral" = Rule 1b rather than 1a.
- Nigra = "NY-gra" = Rule 1b rather than 1a.
- Vertebra = "VER-te-bra" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Palpebra = "PAL-pe-bra" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Agnatha = "AG-na-tha" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Perognathus = "pe-ROG-na-thus" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Zalophus = "ZAL-lo-fus" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Enhydra = "EN-hid-dra" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Callitriche = "ca-LIT-rik-ee" = Rule 2c rather than 2a.
- Veratrum = "ve-RAY-trum" = Rule 2b rather than 2c.
- The letter X is treated as two separate consonants because it has a "KS" sound:
- Axis, Taxus (short "a" as in cat) following Rule 1a rather than 1b.
- Chionodoxus (short "O" as in cot) following 2a rather than 2b
- Commemorative names (eponyms):
- Taxa may commemorate personal names or surnames such as
Alice Eastwood's Daisy, Virginia's Warbler, and Wilson's Honeycreeper. These
names are treated as latinized possessive nouns (Alice's =
aliciae, Wilson's = wilsoni). The classical accent may be
determined by the Latin form of the name. If Wilson were latinized as Wilsonius
the pronunciation of wilsoni would be "wil-SO-nye." If Wilson were latinized as
Wilsonus, the pronunciation of wilsoni would be
"WIL-so-nye." Archival records indicate inconsistency in latinization of names, so
some flexibility exists in pronunciation, and there is precedent in both classical and
modern Latin for conservation. Thus "WIL-so-nye" (Rule 2c
) is preferable to "wil-SO-ni," whereas andersoni is best treated as
"an-der-SO-ni" rather than "an-DER-so-ni."
- aberti = "a-BER-tye" = Rule 2a
- aliceae = "al-IS-ee-ee" = Rule 2c
- calderi = "CALL-de-rye" = Rule 2c
- hendersonii = "hen-der-SO-nee-eye" = Rule 2c
- lewisii = "lew-ISS-ee-eye" = Rule 2c
- virginiae = "vir-JIN-ee-ee" = Rule 2c
- Certain contractions ending in -ic, -id, and -it
retain the vowel quality of the original:
- Gravid, (a as in cat) from gravidus [rather than Rule 1b]
- Tropic, (o as in cot) from tropicus [rather than Rule 1b]
- Cephalic, (a as in cat) from cephalicus [rather than Rule 2c]
- Hepatic, (a as in cat) from hepaticus [rather than Rule 2c]
- Accentation of English contractions varies with suffix:
- -POD, stressed third to last syllable:
Arthropod = ARTH-ro-pod
gastropod = GAS-tro-pod
- -IC, stressed next to last syllable:
pacific = pac-IF-ic
cephalic = ce-PHAL-ic
somatic = so-MAT-ic
exotic = ex-OT-ic
- -ID, stressed third to last syllable:
annelid = AN-nel-id
hominid = HOM-in-id
salmonid = SAL-mon-id
elapid = EL-ap-id
colubrid = COL-u-brid
- Classical pronunciation
- An estimated pronunciation from the Golden Age of Rome (80-14 C.E.)
is used for the reading of
ancient literature. This pronunciation differs greatly from English
scientific Latin, and is
more difficult to master. For example, Cicero is "kickero," Caesar
is "Kysar," cervix is "kerwix," vertebrae is "wertebrye," major is "mahyoor,"
Thuja is "Tooya," and Vaccinium
is "wakkeeniom." Some naturalists apply classical sound values to
scientific names, and some employ hybrid pronunciations such
as "fun-jee" for fungi. The
English pronunciation is "funj-eye" and the classical is ~"foongh-ee." An excellent
reference for classical pronunciation is
Vox Latina by Sidney Allen (1988, Cambridge University Press, 133 pages.)
- Selected References for English Scientific Latin
(Many more references are listed in
- Chandler, C. 1889. Pronunciation of Latin and Quasi-latin Scientific terms.
- Bulletin of the Scientific Laboratories of Denison University, 4:161-176.
- Else, G.F. 1967.The Pronunciation of Classical Names and Words in English.
- The Classical Journal, 62:210-214.
- Gould, B.A. 1832. Adam's Latin Grammar. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company.
- Kelly, H.A. 1986. Pronouncing Latin Words in English.
- Classical World, 80:33-37.
- Return to Rules.