A Guide to Pronouncing Plant Names by Judith Sims. St. Paul, MN: Herbwise Media; 2010. Audio or digital CD and transcript. $30.00.
Most people who are interested in botanicals, including many in industry and academia, are not taught how to pronounce the Latin names of plants or comprehend their meanings. This is understandable, since few people these days study Latin. However, the use of Latin binomials is still necessary for clear communication, especially in science, industry, and the regulatory community, and mispronunciations result in awkward communication and occasionally, misunderstanding.
Judith Sims’ short course on proper pronunciation of the scientific names of plants is an excellent introduction to the subject. Enough rules and examples are provided to make the lay user comfortable pronouncing most names, perhaps with the exception of a few tricky ones, such as the genera Isoetes, Ptelea, or Cnidium, whose rules aren’t explained. Equally correct alternative pronunciations are acknowledged; “American” syllable stressing (which is contrasted with “formal, trained” stress, although even trained Americans tend to use it with certain names) is actively discouraged.
The meaning of some common specific epithets is also taught, and an English common name is usually given immediately before each scientific name (i.e., Latin binomial), helping users to learn scientific names for some well-known plants. Names used as examples are of medicinal plants throughout, making the course of particular interest and value to people interested in herbal medicine.
The course includes almost 30 short audio tracks and a printed or PDF transcript, as well as a short post-test. Most of the explanations and examples are read by Sims herself, but there are 2 “drill” lists of medicinal plant names read by taxonomist Dr. Anita Cholewa, herbarium curator and collections manager at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, MN, and a sample of names read in the ancient Roman (Latin) style by a male speaker not identified in the transcript. The pronunciation of names is reliably correct and audible.
The transcript does not provide phonetic pronunciations in all sections, so the course cannot simply be read, but must be listened to. In fact, it should be listened to repeatedly. “Nothing works better than mindless drilling,” the introduction says, to develop proper pronunciation. Since each track repeats each included name or epithet only once, the user should be prepared to stop and repeat tracks as often as needed to become comfortable with the vocabulary presented.
The most confusing aspect of the course is the organization of the transcript. The beginning of a new track on the CD is usually indicated by a bold-faced heading in the transcript, but sometimes there is no indication of the break between tracks. Other flaws are very minor, e.g., in the Roman/Latin section, several common names have been omitted and occasional parenthetical comments were made by the speaker but not transcribed. One of the drill lists of herbs is organized alphabetically by scientific name (with one misplaced species), while the other is organized alphabetically by common name. In a future edition, it might be desirable, for the sake of the “mindless drill” that’s been recommended, if additional tracks could be included that provided the common names mixed up in a random order.
–Wendy L. Applequist, PhD
Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis, MO