[Front Page] [Features] [Departments] [Society Home] [Subscribe]

Australian Plants online

Botany and How She is Spoke

Jim Barrow

Many people take one look at a botanical name and panic.

There are two sorts of problems. One is that they cannot associate any meaning with the words and there is no easy cure for that; few are prepared to learn the required Latin or Greek. But with persistence it is easy to learn to associate meanings with components of words, things like 'phyllo' (leaf), and 'lepto' (thin, slender). The other problem is that often there are so many syllables that they just don't know how to put their mouths around them. And getting a word into your comprehension zone does depend on being able to vocalise it even if only silently. We can help a bit with that. The first thing to consider is how to pronounce the letters.

   Pronounce these!!
(traditionally speaking)

Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images

Hibbertia grossulariifolia
Hibbertia grossulariifolia

Jacksonia scoparia
Jacksonia scoparia

Alyogyne hakeifolia
Alyogyne hakeifolia

Gossypium sturtianum
Gossypium sturtianum

Nothofagus cunninghamii
Nothofagus cunninghamii

Cochlospermum gillivraei
Cochlospermum gillivraei

Archirhodomyrtus beckleri
Archirhodomyrtus beckleri

Photos: Keith Townsend, Geoff Keena, Cas Liber, Brian Walters

Unfortunately pronouncing the letters is not straightforward. The problem is that there are two conventions. One convention is called 'traditional' if you approve of it or 'old-fashioned' if you don't. The other convention might similarly be called 'reformed' or 'new fangled'. They differ in lots of ways but the ones that most affect us are the pronunciation of 'c', 'g', 'j', and 'tia'.

In the traditional convention we follow many of the rules of English (in so far as it can be said to have rules). For example, 'c' is sounded differently in 'case' and in 'ceiling'. The rule is that before an open vowel ('a', 'o', 'u') we pronounce 'c' as 'k' and before a narrow vowel ('i', 'e') as 's'. So Ficus (fig) is pronounced 'Fikus'. But when we we want to say the leaves are like those of a fig (ficifolia) we say 'feeseefolia'. In the reformed convention 'c' is almost always 'k' - so we say 'feekeefolia'. Similar rules apply to 'g'. So in the traditional convention 'geranium' is pronounced, as in common practice, as 'jeranium'; in the reformed the 'g' is as in 'good'.

In the traditional convention 'j' is pronounced as in 'joke', that is as in normal English usage. In the reformed it is pronounced like the English 'y', that is as in many European languages. But we run into problems when the 'j' comes from someone's name - few would pronounce Jacksonia as 'Yaksonia', for example. This brings in another rule: that we should try to pronounce as in the original language, a rule that is very difficult in many cases (more on this later).

Finally the 'tia' ending is pronounced 'sheea' in the traditional convention, 'teea' in the reformed. There are also differences in the way vowels are pronounced but we won't bother about them at present. To summarise:


Which should you use?

I'd suggest two rules. One is; be consistent. If you choose to say 'feekeefolia', then say Geranium (not Jeranium), Yunkus and Hibberteea. Two is: consider the person to whom you are speaking. The aim of speech is supposed to be to communicate so try to use the convention you think your listener will understand.

Pronouncing the letters is only half the battle. We must also pronounce the syllables. The problem here is knowing where to put the emphasis. The rule is that it is usually on the second last syllable. The major exception occurs when the second last syllable is short and it wouldn't make much sense to emphasise it. So we say BANKsia not BanksIa, similarly with HAKea and HibBERtia.

Applying the rule to longer words requires some knowledge of how the word is constructed. Many multi-syllable words are made up of two multi-syllable words and we apply the rule to each component. Melaleuca is a compound of two words MELa-LEUCa (black - white) and is pronounced accordingly. Alyogyne comes from Greek alos (indissoluble) and gyne (a woman) - the style branches are fused. So two words again. Most speakers would pronounce the "g" as in other "gyne" words such as gynecology - so "al-EE-o-GYNE-ee". Here are some familiar ones:

MelaleucaMELa-LEUCaBlack - white
LeptospermumLEPto-SPERMumSlender - seed
CalothamnusCAlo-THAMnusBeautiful - bush
ConospermumCONo-SPERMumCone shaped - seed
PhymatocarpusPhyMATo-CARPusTumour - fruit

We don't always follow this rule. In Australia we usually say PittOSporum and seldom hear PITToSPORum (pitch-seed , ie. sticky seed) although it is the common pronunciation in New Zealand. And I wouldn't like your chances if you asked for CALLiSTEMon (beautiful stamen) at your local plant nursery. However, we probably should pronounce Petrophile as PETroPHILae.

When a plant is named after someone, it takes some time for us to stop thinking of the name as a person's name and start thinking of it as a plant name. We have, for example, just about forgotten George Hibbert and have no problem saying HibBERsheea. And the Duchess of Beaufort's name (with the emphasis on the "Beau") has been honoured by BeauFORTia. But Macarthur is such a familiar name that we have trouble giving Macarthuria the Latin pronunciation with the emphasis on the second last syllable. We have similar problems with cunninghamii. Should we emphasise the "ham" according to the rules, or the "cun" as in common speech? Likewise with, for example, "gilivraei" and "beckleri". Most would find it awkward to put the emPHASis on the second sylLABle!

One problem is to know when the second last syllable is small enough to NOT be emphasised. Most of us think that in Dodonaea (Latinised form of Robert Dodoens and therefore one word not two) the second last syllable is worth emphasis and say DodonAEa, but one occasionally hears DoDONaea.

Geleznowia verrucosa  
Geleznowia verrucosa

Trying to pronounce words as in the original language leads to some interesting problems. A nice one is Geleznowia, commonly called yellow bells or golden bells. It is named for Nikolai Ivanovich Zheleznov. The initial letter of the surname is the Russian 'zhay' - it looks like a pair of back-to-back 'K's (ZHEV (1K)). We translate it into English as 'Zh' but into Latin as 'G'. So presumably the correct pronunciation is something like ZhelezNOVia.

Good luck!

From the newsletter of the Wildflower Society of Western Australia, February 2003..


[Front Page] [Features] [Departments] [Society Home] [Subscribe]

Australian Plants online - March 2004
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants