Saturday, 30 May 2020

Stearn's Botanical Latin

The Bane of my young life, apart from the #♫!♪* piano, was Latin. It was a mix of rote learning declensions [nouns and adjectives] and conjugations [verbs] and translating random chunks of Latin prose into English. Latin is an inflected language [like Irish, but not so much in English]: the words change their endings in more-or-less logical consistent ways to indicate whether the dog is biting the man [Canis virum mordet] or the other way round [Vir canem mordet]. I could manage that stuff: there were rules; I was institutionalised. Even if nobody explained why you decline a noun but conjugate a verb. Hell came round once a week: same time, same place, different 'unseen'. Wednesday always came round as a total surprise to me: I woke with a sense of dread that The Gaffer would call on me to translate a sentence. As there were 20 lads in the class and maybe a dozen sentences, it was short odds that I would be so called. Apparently there were ways one could prepare for such a class: look up a few key-words before hand, hmmmm?  But I was habitually off in a world of my own, hoping for easier tasks, more grub, fewer boils. I don't remember being shouted at, or humiliated; I could call myself an ignoramus ["we do not know," first person plural present indicative of ignorare "not to know". I do not know, you know, he-she-or-it knows, they know, but we (because me), we do not know.] with outside help.

Much later, all those doom-laden hours turned out to be useful.  Latin can be handy for reading French and Portuguese newspapers. Science is awash with Latin: the names of species and body parts for starters. Many of the sesquipedalian words can be broken down into meaningful lumps. Weirdly and wonderfully, this  dead  language is alive and well in biological taxonomy and classification. Although Cicero and Caesar would have about as much difficulty reading a formal species description as we do Chaucer. The big disconnect stems from two primary sources. 1) Linnaeus decided to use plant floral parts as the key diagnostic features to distinguish among plants. But the ever practical Romans were only interested in the bit that they or they livestock ate. So there are lots of classical Latin words for stems, roots, seeds and fruits. For flowers and what we call anthers, stigmas, petals and bracts . . . not so much. 2) Romans had no magnifying glasses or microscopes, so they were unaware of the diversity of pollen or the details of floral anatomy. And, frankly, on the sketchiest and probably false ideas about where fruit comes from and how flowers are involved in the process. Then again, many of the early namers-of-things were native Germanic speakers and contributed a clatter of new coinages from their own tongues.

On our last (ever?) trip through Wales in January, I picked up a copy £2! of William T. Stearn's Botanical Latin 3rd 1982 edition. It's a slab of a book, covering the vocabulary, grammar and usage of that peculiar language. It seems that all new species must be named from Greek or Latin roots but also must be exactly described in Botanical Latin. Stands to reason really; you can't allow Danes and Croats to delimit and define the species because only a handful of people will know enough Danish or Serbo-Croat to understand with diagnostic precision what's on the table in the herbarium.

Although there were poets in classsical times they didn't seem to push the boat out to enrich the vocabulary in, say, colour. But the colours of flowers (and to a lesser extent leaves, stems, roots) were often crucial to distinguish among closely related species. It matters to know the difference because different plant species may be toxic or host to a damaging insect pest and the colour of the petals is easier to establish than the concentration of an alkaloid or the transitory presence of them darned bugs larvae. Classic Greek was so random in their use of colour descriptors (wine-dark sea etc.) that William E "Home Rule" Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, floated the idea that the whole lot of them were colour-blind. They also had a limited vocabulary in blues and greens perhaps because they didn't uses them in their dying industry or maybe because they didn't care: This one's green and this one's green and this one's green and this one's green . . .

An amateur philologist can have a couple of hours scudding over the Botanical Latin colour descriptors, not only to have a few aha!s over the word used to describe a particular tint.

Whites: Candida albicans is the off-white pure-white fungus, for example. Neither is as snow-white as nivalis. Milk white lacteus otoh has a touch of blue, while chalk-white cretaceus has a hint of grey and is definitely matt. Argenteus is a silvery white with a lustre. cremeus or eborinus are creamy because there is an undertone of yellow.

Greys: you know that gray is darker than grey, of course. In Latin we have cineraceus, cinereus ashy, griseus pearly, schistaceus slatey, plumbeus leaden going in the opposite direction from more white to more black. Stearn throws murinus mousy and fumosus smokey in with the greys.

Yellows and oranges: Loadsa tones here. Citronus lemony; aureus golden; luteus / xantho "such yellow as gamboge" which would be utterly useless to me, had The Blob not done a treatise on the chemistry of orange pigment in 2018; flavus is paler than gamboge; sulphureus is "more lively"; stramineus straw-coloured; ochraeus ochre ochroleucus a whiter shade of ochre; cerinus waxy vitellinus yolky; croceus saffron; aurantiacus orange; fluvus tawny.

Greenssmaragdinus paddy green; viridis / chloro a tone down; aeruginosus verdigris; glaucus, thalassicus sea-green - a bit of blue; atrovirens a deep dark blackish green; flavovirens stained with yellow; olivaceus / elaio olive drab.

Blues: We've a had a couple of Blob-forays into the preception and naming of blues because Greek and Russian have two different names for oxford μπλε синий and cambridge κυανός, γαλανός голубой blues. Botanical Latin has a range also.  Cyanus Prussian, cornflower; indigoticus indigo; azureus sky-blue; caesius eye-blue, lavender's hint of grey;  caeruleus regular blue; violaceus blue stained with red; lilacinus is a paler violet; lazulinus ultramarine; cobaltinus ;

Reds: Puniceus carmine; ruber /erythro blood red; roseus rosy; corallinus coral; incarnatus flesh-coloured; coccineus cinnabarinus scarlet; igneus flaming; miniatus vermillion; laterititius brick; rubiginosus reddy-brown; cupreus coppery gilvus terra-cotta..

Jakers, these poor botanists must be yearning for Linnaeus to roll over in his grave and allow Pantone colour charts and/or RGB hexadecimal codes #00d800 #FFA500 #00ffff to be used in floral descriptors.

"I learned to look at hands, which I'd never looked at before. And instead of just looking at houses and trees I learned to look at houses and trees against the sky. And I learned also that shadows are not black but coloured." The learning outcomes from two years 'wasted' in Paris as an art student; from Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

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