Or, as I am sure some of my students would say, “please, why oh why learn latin..” Latin has been used for the naming of all things natural mainly because it is a ‘dead language’; it is no longer spoken and can therefore no longer evolve and change. The hope being that once something is named in this language it will stay fixed forever.
In theory this is the case,although the powers that be do like to tinker with things and recent research using DNA across the natural world has led to some name changes, as the relationships between organisms are understood more deeply. Generally an organism has two names; the first, a generic name which identifies it to a fairly small group of very similar organisms and the second, a specific which makes the name entirely unique to that particular form. It can be quite difficult to get your head around this naming process but it can be easier if explained using something more familiar. Take cars for example, with Toyota as the generic name which is comparable with Quercus, the latin for Oak. We know there are lots of different Toyotas on the roads just as there are many species of Oak in the forests, around 800 worldwide if memory serves. To get the individual we must be more specific with a specific name, Toyota hilux and Quercus robur we now know that there is only one Toyota hilux just as there is only one Quercus robur or English oak.
But why not just call it an English oak I hear you cry? (actually this is often more of a wail!). The problem with using an English or common name is the variation both regionally or in fact anywhere where English is spoken. Take sycamore for example which most us recognise as Acer pseudoplatinus, a maple with fairly soft wood, great for carving and bow drill fires. To the Americans, the sycamore is a species of plane tree, much denser and used by bow makers as a bow wood. You can start to see how confused this naming business can become without some structure. Together with identifying something exactly, the knowledge of latin can also help when researching skills from other parts of the temperate world. For example does the ‘bow making’ plane tree previously mentioned have the same properties as the London plane tree which is readily available in the UK? It would certainly seem likely and so be worth experimenting with. By studying the real relationships to be found behind the naming of things I have discovered many applications for temperate plants and trees.
Sometimes a little understanding of the meaning of the names can also help with identification. Often the generic name especially with tree and plants is not especially meaningful, but the species name is frequently very useful. Take again our sycamore and plane tree example. The scientific generic name for plane is plantinus – our sycamore is generically Acer, which describes all of the maple family, the specific name pseudo as in ‘false’ and platinus as in ‘plane’. If you compare the leaves of these two species the naming is obvious. Our sycamore looks like a plane but it isn’t hence the ‘false plane’.
Latin can also be used to find out more information about an animal, recently I was looking into the tracks and sign of the weasel. Unable to find the answers to my questions in my English field guides I resorted to some American books, I was only able to find out what I needed to know because I looked for Mustela nivalis and not a different species.
Learning to use Latin can at first seem a daunting prospect but persevere because it can open a whole world of new information and knowledge for the botanist and tracker alike. I know some time in the near future my students will thank me for it!