[lg policy] A Dead Language Dies Anew

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 31 15:29:48 UTC 2012

A Dead Language Dies Anew

January 31, 2012, 12:01 am

By Lucy Ferriss

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

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

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.



 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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