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Botanists finally ditch Latin and paper, enter 21st century

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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While some schoolchildren daydream about crushes during class, delicately inscribing their names in paper margins, others instead yearn to one day discover and name their own species for the cute boy at the corner desk. But they know little about the excess work involved in plant discovery. Even after discovering and confirming a new species of plant, which is trying enough itself, botanists have to submit a description in Latin — even if they had never studied the language before — and ensure that said description is published in a journal printed on real paper.

That is until New Years Day 2012, when new rules passed at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia this July, take effect: the botanists voted on a measure to leave the lengthy and time-consuming descriptions behind. Additionally, the group released their concerns about the impermanence of electronic publication, and will now allow official descriptions to be set in online-only journals.

“Probably in 1935 [when the Latin requirement was instated], most people who got serious university degrees were required to take Latin,” says botanist Jim Miller from the New York Botanical Garden, who published an accompanying paper in the journal PhytoKeys in July. “But it has become less true that Latin is universally accessible.”

The botanists’ abandonment of Latin is yet another opportunity for this amateur Classicist to bemoan the passing of Classical study — but when I spoke with Jim, he really did have me convinced that it was time. This isn’t just a simple Latin name we’re talking about, or even a sentence; for example, when Jim discovered a new species of tree in Suriname, he had to pen the following in order to officially name it Cordia koemarae:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis,  7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.

Okay, so it’s not exactly a prime example of Golden Age Latin poetry. But, nonetheless, the Latin requirement presented a hindrance to botanists who are busy trying to name nearly 2,000 new species of plants, algae and fungi each year to disseminate the findings to other scientists and naturalists. “If we can increase the efficiency by which biologists can do their work and name species that we are racing against the clock to describe before they are lost or go extinct because of galloping deforestation, that’s a good thing,” says Miller.

And in another unanimous vote at the conference, which is held every six years and includes 8-10 hours of discussion nomenclature each day, the botanists decided to allow publication in electronic journals. The group had a similar discussion six years ago, Miller told me, but at the time the web still felt very impermanent — I’m thinking geocities or angelfire impermanent. And if you’re a botanist consulting a lengthy record of described plant species, you don’t want to lose some of those descriptions into the black hole of cyberspace. But this year, the botanists decided the web was less spooky and now can describe species in any electronic journal that has an ISSN, for the purpose of archiving.

“I think the importance of what happened at the Melbourne conference — whether elimination of Latin or allowing electronic publication — is that there was a real feeling among the people who attended the nomenclature session that we face a daunting task trying to catalogue, make sense out of, describe and name all of the species that are on this planet,” says Miller. “And we need to facilitate that, not encumber it.”

So on this New Years day, don’t just make resolutions and seek a kiss — also do your part in welcoming the botanists to the 21st century, a century in which we no longer speak in Latin and the web feels like a somewhat permanent destination… at least for now.

Images: from the Aztec herbal Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, first translated into Latin in 1552. Images in the public domain and found on Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zfaulkes 10:40 am 12/28/2011

    For the record, zoologists haven’t joined the botanists in allowing electronic only publications of new species descriptions.

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  2. 2. Landy 5:42 pm 12/28/2011

    “rules passed at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia this summer”.

    Eh? It was July, which is winter in Melbourne, not summer. Why not just say “July”. Quoting a season to pinpoint a time of year is just so wrong!

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  3. 3. hanjeanwat 6:06 pm 12/28/2011

    Zen — I did not realize that about zoologists. They don’t require the Latin abstracts, however, as far as i Know.

    Landy — I apologize for my North hemispheric-centric mindset. I have updated the post! Love commenters who keep me on my toes

    Thanks for reading

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  4. 4. David Marjanović 6:50 pm 12/28/2011

    foliis majoribus ellipticus

    That must be a typo for ellipticis.

    I did not realize that about zoologists.

    While the zoologists don’t require “in ink on paper” anymore as they used to, the 4th and so far latest edition of the big-C Code (1999) requires publication on a permanent medium – CDs are allowed, the Internet is not, journals that publish online before print have the appearance date of the print version as the official publication date even if they themselves foolishly claim otherwise. When PLoS ONE “published” Darwinius, plenty of people pointed out the lack of a “permanent” version, so PLoS ONE made a few printed copies a few days later, and that’s the publication date of Darwinius masillae.

    The zoologists haven’t ever required Latin as far as I know, though. The scientific names which preserve their authors’ lack of knowledge of Latin (let alone Greek) are, well, legion, and the Code doesn’t even allow anyone to correct them (except for gender congruence between genus names and species names* that are adjectives, which is automatic).

    * That’s what the botanists call “specific epithet”. Yes, seriously, the zoological code calls it “species name” even though the actual name of any species is the binomen. *sigh* Well, it also confuses definition and diagnosis, but I digress.

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  5. 5. Dr. Bruce 10:02 am 12/29/2011

    This is worrisome on both accounts: dropping a time-tested language standard and embracing an impermanent publication medium, viz., Latin and the internet, respectively. It’s a little disingenuous to use the 21st century as THE reason for such changes. Conducting fieldwork with paper and pencil might be perceived as archaic by some yet these are still dependable tools for us ecologists. Latin and paper publications are tools in the toolbox that also includes “newcomers” such as internet services. The best approach, I think, for determining the lasting relevance of any of our so-called tools is “Festina lente,” or “Make haste slowly.” Keep the Latin, keep the paper, at least for now, and then give other emerging tools a trial by fire to see if they work for the long haul. But who in the world would throw out his old tried-and-true hammer just because he received a Sears Craftsman Nextec 12-volt lithium-ion cordless hammer for Christmas? Hmm, isn’t Sears heading in the same direction as Montgomery Ward? I’ll keep my old hammer.

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  6. 6. Daniel35 2:01 pm 01/2/2012

    I hate to say it in this group, but I still question the validity of going all out to distinguish species, or of trying to find them ALL, since more must be evolving all the time, especially with single-cell organisms that sometimes exchange DNA. I believe there are several ways to tell if something is a different species, just as there are to define life itself.

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  7. 7. janvones 8:27 am 01/3/2012

    Abandonment of standards and change for change’s sake are hardly unqualified goods. Anyone old enough to remember the prestige and quality of Scientific American as late as the early 1980′s as compared to today’s flash and superficial sensationalism knows that without question.

    Will you celebrate the abandonment of English for Chinese in 2036 as readily as you do the abandonment of Latin for English today?

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