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Volume 51, 1919
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Art. XXXV.—The Pronunciation of Scientific Terms in New Zealand, with Special Reference to the Terms of Botany.

[Read before the New Zealand Institute, at Christchurch, 4th-8th February, 1919; received by Editor 11th March, 1919; issued separately, 19th August, 1919.]

The fact that the pronunciation of scientific terms in general and of botanical terms in particular is very variable, not to say chaotic, in New Zealand needs, unfortunately, no demonstration. An attempt is here made to show how this state of affairs might possibly be remedied. The question of the pronunciation of Greek and Latin among modern nations is not here dealt with. Although it would not be easy to draw up in detail a scheme for a “modern” pronunciation which should be satisfactory to all, yet it would not be impossible, and the mode already adopted in the schools of New Zealand comes near enough to the ideal for the purposes of this paper. It would be beyond its scope to deal with the pronunciation of Latin and Greek as it varies in England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Germany, or to go back over the sixteenth-century controversies of Erasmus, Reuchlin, and Sir Thomas Smith. It is assumed throughout that a “modern” mode can be found—approximately such as used in the schools of New Zealand—and that such a system stands opposed to the purely “insular” or “English” system, in which all the foreign words are sounded simply as if they were English, as is recommended in Field's Ferns of New Zealand. The details of any such modern mode would be settled, if the proposals here outlined came to anything, by the special committee set up for the purpose. The phonetic system here used is that of the Oxford Dictionary, but it has been found necessary to modify it a little. The sound of s in measure (z) is represented here by zh. The symbol sh is retained. The symbol o may represent either open or close o. Thus in Australia our rendering gives o as the first sound, and this is an open o. The stress or accent is indicated here by an acute accent following the stressed syllable.

The writer hopes to be pardoned for the rather hopeless tone of some of his conclusions. The fact is that the question is the most complicated and difficult with which he has ever been faced, involving as it does the history of the pronunciation of Greek and Latin among the different nations of Europe during the last thousand and especially during the last four hundred years (since the Reformation); the variant “modern” or “reformed” systems, and the degree of success which has attended the attempt to intro duce them, or any of them, into the schools of England; the purely scientific question of phonetics; the more practical question of phonetic script; the psychological question of inherited or acquired speech-instincts, and especially the instincts which govern accentuation or stressing of syllables and baffle all scientific inquiry; the partly practical consideration of the exchange of ideas and knowledge between students of New Zealand themselves, and between those students and teachers and those of other countries—e.g., of England, Germany, Japan; the political question—New Zealand's position within the British Empire, and her state of intellectual tutelage; the purely practical question of the vocabulary of the farmer and the gardener, &c., which largely coincides with that of the university and technical instructor; and, lastly, the purely philological or linguistic

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questions, such as accentuation or stressing, and the relation of the scientific vocabulary to that of common life. Many of these considerations conflict with one another; others demand more knowledge and research than the importance of the subject seems to warrant; and, on the whole, the writer has found the subject exceedingly puzzling. It seemed to him all the more necessary, then, that some attempt should be made to deal with it, and this paper represents such an attempt.

It may be added that the proposals here outlined are calculated to produce their effect only upon the rising generation. We older scientific men (if the author may be allowed to use the first person) are hardened in sin and beyond hope.

The only logical scientific system possible would be got by the adoption of a “Continental” Latin pronunciation, or as near an approximation thereto as circumstances might permit. This would have to be rigidly observed so that no exception or anomaly could occur. The adoption of any such system is, however, rendered difficult or impossible by the following considerations:—

  • (1.) New Zealand, being a part of the British Empire, should look to Great Britain as its scientific metropolis; but the unreformed “English” or “insular” pronunciation of Latin still obtains largely in England, so that many, if not all, of the older scientific men use this pronunciation of Latin and Greek botanical and other scientific terms. It will easily be seen how this concerns imported professors, visiting English botanists, and New Zealand students continuing their studies in England. An imported professor, for example, using the insular mode and not choosing to alter it might be almost incomprehensible to his students, all of whom are familiar only with a “reformed” mode.

  • (2.) Numbers of words, or parts of words, in the botanical vocabulary appear also in ordinary speech, perfectly anglicized:—

    • (a.) Geranium Viola, Gentian, Calceolaria, Gypsophila, Geum, Angelica, and other generic names tend naturally to be pronounced in the English manner, especially by farmer and gardener; so also Pinus in forestry.

    • (b.) Names of native plants which have become familiar to the general public of New Zealand through cultivation or otherwise have been anglicized beyond recall, such as Celmisia or Senecio.

    • (c.) Parts of terms like micro-, uni-, bi-, hydro-, austral-, occurring commonly in such words as microscope, universal, bivalve, hydrophobia, Australia, and thoroughly anglicized, tend to be sounded anglice when used scientifically. Thus hydrocotyle is usually pronounced haidrocot'ile, but the two y's in it equally represent a Greek v, so that the word ought to be either hai'drokotai'le or hi'drokot'ile. Again, it feels uncomfortable to speak of “vittadinia australis” as growing in “ostreilie.”

    • (d.) Special difficulties occur where these words have to be inflected. If they be kept Latin in sound they should have a Latin plural: Thus geum should have plural gea; the English dzhīem should have dzīemz. But words like hydrocotyle, as noticed above, are neither Latin nor English, as usually pronounced; and such plurals as genera (= dzhenera) are established though genus is pronounced as English dzhīnes.

  • (3.) The vocabulary consists largely of personal names, more or less successfully latinized, from many languages — e.g., English, Scotch, Irish,

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  • French, German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages. In any perfectly logical, scientific scheme these must be remorselessly latinized in sound—e.g., all r's must be trilled; the ch in Gaudichaudiana, Deschampsia, Grisebachii, Dieffenbachii, Chapmani, Chathamica, Cheesemanii, Archeria, must be consistently sounded as k only; the ie of Petrie and Guthrie as i + e; the th of Smith, Guthrie, &c., as t only; the ay and ai of Cockayniana, Blairii, Claytonia, as ai; the oo of Hooker, Doodia, as ō. The J of any Johnsoni must be J = y, not J = dzh; au in Gaudichaudi, Vauthiera, Gaultheria, australe, Mackaui, must be au, not ō close or open; Raoulia must be raovlia; Youngii becomes jovngii; Roughii, rovgii.

Examples of terms which would have to be altered greatly if consistently latinized:—

Guthrie - Smithiana, gutrie - smitiana, not gapri-smiþiana; Hookeri (Bulbinella), hōkerī, not hukerai; Fairchildii (Pittosporum), fairkildii, not fērtshaildiai; Cheesemanii (Luzula), kēsemanii, not tshizmeniai; Campbellensis (Celmisia), kampbellensis, not kambelensis; Petriei (Carex), pētriei, not pītriai; Menziesii (Fagus), menziezii, not menzīziai; Matthewsii (Ranunculus), mattevzii, not mæþiuziai; Stewartiae (Senecio), stevartie (or -ai), not stiuātiai; Stackhousia, stakhovzia (or -sia), not stækhauzie; Featherstonii (Cotula), featerstonii, not feöesteniai; Walkeri (Celmisia), valkeri, not wōκerai.

This leads to impossibilities, as some combinations of sounds in such words are impossible in Latin—e.g., ow in Townsoni, Brownii; dg in Edgerleyi and Tunbridgense; iea in Petrieana, &c.; ew in Matthewsii; ou in Youngii; ough in Roughii. All double consonants must be sounded double: Huttoniana, Dallii, &c. Our present terminology is full of partly latinized pronunciations like mackauai, cunninghamiai, and in fact nearly all the terms in -i. The alternative is to pronounce such names according to the usage of the language from which they come, and this if logically and rigidly observed leads to difficulties almost as great; barbarous compromises and approximations result. The French or German botanist visitor may find the British names just as hard and puzzling (e.g., Buchanani, Youngii) as the German terms are to those who know no German. All botanists cannot be also trained linguists. Where an orthographical device like the German ue or oe (as in Muehlenbeckia, Koeleria) or our own ea (as in Pearsoni) or ie (as in Petrie) or final e occurs, it seems absurd to latinize the symbol and pronounce it phonetically (e.g., to sound the second e in Petrieana or Field and the third in Cheeseman); yet to do otherwise undoubtedly introduces an anomaly into any logical or perfectly scientific scheme. The same is true of symbols which have become silent (l in Walkeri) or now stand for a sound quite other than that originally signified (ow in Brownii, ew in Matthewsii); and these again offer puzzles and pitfalls for the foreigner. There is no reason why we should not have a New Zealand species “Cholmondeleyi,” which, with us, if we had only ourselves to consider would be tshamliai; while to the foreigner, guided by the spelling alone, it would be kolmondeleii.

  • (4.) Even where a uniform “reformed” pronunciation has been introduced, as in the schools of New Zealand, there remains room for inconsistencies and local variations, and it proves most difficult or impossible to persuade, force, or wheedle the young into use of certain sounds, especially the true short u as in sub, and the long e as in -es (Erechtites), which is universally sounded in New Zealand like a in same (= ei). Again, ae in some schools = ai, in others e or ei.

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  • (5.) Accentuation or stressing offers innumerable and often insuperable difficulties. The English rule of accentuation, which the genius of the language absolutely demands, draws the stress as far back as possible, often placing it in situations most awkward for any tongue other than an English one; and English stresses or emphasizes one or two syllables in a polysyllable at the expense of the rest to a degree unknown in any other language, so that, even if every vowel be given its correct Latin (Continental) value, the word may yet be pronounced in such a way as to be completely delatinized and to seem unintelligible to any but a Briton (Pittos'porum, Meli'cytus, macroph'ylla, Orthoc'eras), especially as the vowel-values themselves alter enormously according to the incidence of the stress—e.g., o in macroph'ylla and o in nobile. This linguistic instinct is most profound, and amounts to a physical compulsion which can be resisted only by a very few specially constituted persons. It also appears to work inconsistently, as it does in ordinary English; thus we tend to place the stress in the “English position” in pronouncing, say, Pteros'tylis, Hypol'epis, multif'idum, Gypsoph'ila, Hype'ricum (and in most words which are in general or everyday use, e.g, by gardeners), but not in Gloss'ostig'ma, He'lichry'sum, Leu'copo'gon, mac'roca'lyx, &c., where the weight of the first or the third syllable, or the nature of the consonantal bridges, renders the “English” pronunciation difficult or impossible. And there is here no line to be drawn; individual practice varies largely. These difficulties are far greater than those, so much discussed in the past, which depend upon the quantity of the vowel (as in the case of Clemātis or Clemâtis, and Gladiōlus or Gladiôlus). However hard it may be to learn, an even or nearly even distribution of the stresses must be acquired if anything like a Latin pronunciation is to be achieved, and this point will have to be specially attended to in the teaching of Latin in the schools. We must learn, that is, to say brachycome, not brachy'come; cyperaceae, not sai'perei'siī; himenofilum, not hai'menofi'lum or haimenof'ilum; abrotanella, not ab'rotanel'la; bukanani, not biukan′enai; ligustikum. not ligus'tikum; aromatikum, not ar'omat'ikum.

  • (6.) A great part of the technical vocabulary of botany is the same, in its elements, as that of the other sciences—biology, chemistry, palaeontology, &c.—and whatever system is adopted for any one of these must also be adopted for all. The very names zoology, biology, and palaeontology, in their usual anglicized pronunciation, serve to illustrate and emphasize the great difficulties involved in any such scheme, since it would seem absurd to call a science biology (baiolodzhi) and to speak, within the science, of biogenesis instead of baiodzhenisis. The problem is thus further complicated, for it is essential that there should be complete unanimity and agreement in practice among all the members, for instance, of the staffs of the University colleges and of all technical institutions, agricultural and experimental colleges where the sciences are taught. The question is thus seen to be only a part of a very much bigger one.

  • (7.) Though this paper deals specially with the names of New Zealand plants, the whole vocabulary of botanical science is, of course, involved. In this case, as in that of any other science, a certain part of this vocabulary has already passed into ordinary speech and is anglicized in sound. This is no constant quantity; at any time, for any out of very many reasons, terms of any science pass over from the technical to the everyday usage, and there is usually a fairly large number of terms, at any given moment of time, in the vocabulary of any science which are indeterminate in this

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  • respect—some speakers treating them as scientific terms and pronouncing them accordingly, others using them as “everyday” English. Thus genus and species are pronounced as English—dzhīnes, spīshīs, not genus, spekiēs; chloride is English (-aid, not -id), while chlorine is indeterminate (both -in and -ain). An excellent example is the geological term stratum, pronounced by different speakers as strātum and streitum. If the pl. is strata, then the a is ā, not ei (cf. Lycopodium, and genitives and plurals in -i). Fungi should be either fangai or fungi, Again, Bacillus should be bakilus, pl. bakilī; or basilus, pl. basilusiz.

As against these objections, we have in New Zealand a decided advantage over the Old Country if any attempt be made to establish a Continental Latin or Greek pronunciation. We all are familiar with the Maori names at least, and are accustomed to pronounce long a and i in something like the true Latin manner; we mispronounce the Maori shockingly, no doubt, especially in the stressing of the syllables, but we have not to travel quite so far as a home-bred Englishman if we wish to adopt a reasonable system. This alone, however, can hardly be thought to counterbalance all the difficulties already mentioned.

Supposing that, for the reasons above mentioned, or for others, it be found impossible to establish any reformed Latin system, the question arises, What is the alternative?

There are two alternatives. One is to pronounce all the Latin and Greek terms as English, in respect of both the value of the vowels and the position of the stressed syllables. The other is a compromise.

Consider the two alternatives briefly.

  • (1.) The average New Zealand student has learned Latin at school and is familiar with that pronunciation which passes for “modern” and with that only. If an “English” scheme of pronunciation be adopted he must unlearn his Latin pronunciation, just as the average Englishman must unlearn his “English” Latin if he is to be understood here. This would seem fatal to any such system. It is certain that a homogeneous and possibly defensible “English” system could be used here, however, as it is in England. There would be variations, inconsistencies of the minor kind, and individual solecisms, no doubt, as there are in England; but such things will always be, whatever system be nominally “adopted.” And no doubt it would be a good thing if the farmer and the gardener could be allowed to pronounce the Latin terms as they see them, supposing that they know little or no Latin, and yet be in line with the university-bred student or teacher of the subject; they could then say “ōstreilis” as they say “ōstreilie,” and not be troubled by hearing others say “australis.”

    Yet no scientific man could, I think, bring himself to recommend the adoption of the “English” or “insular” mode. The case of the student who has learned the “new” mode at school would alone block it; no such scheme could be scientifically defended; and this alternative is here dismissed.

  • (2.) With regard to the other alternative: At first sight it would seem that compromise is the only way, and it may prove that in spite of the best endeavours of scientific men compromise will eventually win. The present chaotic “no system” may be gradually regularized and organized as botanical students and teachers increase in numbers and as those from different centres meet oftener and discuss their subject. And so also with the terminology of science in general: the present comparative isolation of the teachers and students in separate areas tends to encourage the development of variations and local idiosyncrasies; but all that will pass.

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Yet, again, the spirit of compromise is an alien in the world of science. If we adopt a policy of laissez-faire and allow something to develop somehow in the usual British manner of “muddle through and hope for the best,” then the ultimate result will have been partly at least determined by unguided and unenlightened forces working more or less blindly (and in this case deafly), and it will be an unscientific, inconsistent, and unsatisfactory result, encouraging yet more inconsistency, and individual, capricious variation; it will be unstable, illogical, and absurd, and may yet have, we suppose, the sole merit of “pronouncability.”


In spite of the difficulties and apparently insuperable barriers with which the practical carrying-out of such a scheme is beset, it is advisable that an attempt be made to establish in New Zealand a uniform mode of pronouncing all scientific terms of Latin and Greek origin upon the basis of such a modern or reformed pronunciation as is used in the schools.


It is advisable that a committee of the New Zealand Institute be set up to go into the details and draw up a logical, uniform, scientific system of pronunciation of scientific terms; that the scheme when complete should be adopted by the Institute; and that every possible effort should be made to introduce and explain it in all the University colleges and all institutions where science (even elementary science) is taught, with a view to establishing such uniformity as may prove possible.


In order to give practical effect to this idea it would be necessary to draw up a fairly complete glossary of scientific terminology, and to assign to each word a definite phonetic form indicating the sound of each vowel and the incidence of the stress or stresses.


It is essential that all students intending to specialize in science should learn Latin; that in the teaching of Latin in the schools the pronunciation should be made as uniform as possible; and that the pupil should be taught to accentuate the syllables of Latin words in as level a manner as possible, and to break himself of the English habit of “preferential accentuation” (if such a term may be used). This is counsel of perfection, and the writer of this paper knows only too well by long and bitter experience how hard it is to induce British boys and girls to modify in the least degree any of those profoundly seated speech-instincts which are a part of their heritage.


Even though such an attempt be foredoomed to failure, and even though ultimately a compromise only can be attained (and this is much to be feared), yet the attempt will undoubtedly have some effect for good if only by giving such an advantage to the enlightened and organized forces in the battle as may tend to make the inevitable compromise a better thing—a thing nearer to the “scientific” than to the “popular” result. It is to be hoped also that an attempt of this kind may tend to hasten the arrival of the desirable end—i.e., uniformity of practice—even if that practice be based upon no sound or logical theory. If any such effect should hereby be produced this paper will not have been written in vain.