[lg policy] The New Universal Language of Plants

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 6 14:56:42 UTC 2012

The New Universal Language of Plants
Published: January 5, 2012

When Linnaeus standardized the system of species description in the
18th century, Latin was the language of science. So it has remained,
if only in a highly technical sense. The binomial names used by Homo
sapiens are Latin, and for years botanists, unlike zoologists, were
still required to use a page or two of Latin to describe the
distinctive characteristics of a newly named species — the attributes
that made it different from any other. But no more. As of Jan. 1,
diagnostic botanical descriptions may be written in Latin or English,
and the electronic publication of new names is accepted.

These changes acknowledge some basic facts. Botanical Latin is barely
Latin at all, since it includes a huge new scientific vocabulary that
would have stumped Cicero. Nor is a Latin description of a new species
likely to be more accurate or internationally intelligible than one in
English. Furthermore, scientific publication is increasingly moving to
the Internet, expanding accessibility. It makes no sense to slow the
rate of botanical description by forcing scientists to learn how to
encode their discoveries in Latin or by putting up with the lag time
in getting a discovery into actual print.

Unlike modern botanists, Linnaeus felt no special urgency in going
about his job. As climate change alters our world, anything that
speeds up the description of species before they vanish is welcome. As
it is, botanists have described roughly 200,000 species, with about
2,000 new species being described each year at the current rate. At
best, they are less than halfway through the task of indexing all the
plants, fungi and algae on earth.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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