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A Dead Language Dies Anew

Why, oh why, does Latin tug at the heartstrings? It was a language of empire; of lawmakers, yes, but rarely of bards or poets. And yet when I read of the decision by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature to allow plant classification in English rather than Latin, I felt a tinge of nostalgia. No longer, writes the botanist James Miller in The New York Times, will he need to describe his new Mexican species as “Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa”; he can write “Six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves 2 to 7 centimeters long.”

Surely, the new language is a relief for scientists, especially scientists in plant-rich countries where young botanists tend not to cross-train in classical languages. “In places like Ethiopia, for example,” according to Sandra Knapp of London’s Natural History Museum, “people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

The urgency of the change has to do with disappearing species, or taxa, as the newly Anglified International Botanical Congress still, ironically, calls them. I’ve never been good at identifying flora. “What a pretty wildflower!” does fine for me. Whether it’s a hollyhock, a lady’s slipper, or Centaurea cyanis contributes little to my appreciation of its beauty. At the same time, in our neighborhood in the Berkshires, talk is of the threat to a trademark tree because of global warming; and somehow it matters to me that that tree is the birch.

Curiously, the New York Times article announcing the move to English takes this connection for granted. “Considering all the work involved,” Miller writes, “perhaps it’s no wonder that, despite centuries of research and exploration to create a complete inventory of the world’s plant life, there may be as many as 100,000 plant species that are not yet known to science, waiting to be cataloged—if we can find and describe them in time.” How exactly does describing a plant, be it in Latin or in English, save it from the end times?

It does so because, pace the Bard, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a rose by no name will have no defenders from the forces of extinction. The wildflowers are pretty, but I’m not attached to any particular one of them. My neighbor, by contrast, is passionate about his dahlias and will announce each specific type with a parent’s pride.

Thus, with dwindling resources, the botanists spread out, taking with them the Godlike power of naming, the first step toward preservation. By not needing to learn and write Latin, they will travel more swiftly and name more abundantly. Still, I hope that as they leave behind the imperial carcass of a dead language whose echoes still travel down the centuries, they will opt for euphony, if not grandeur.  Perhaps that six-meter-tall tree could be a Truffula, for instance, of the genus Seuss. I could get nostalgic for that.

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