Why use the Language of the Ancient Romans for Scientific Description?

Author: Charles Lee, Townsville Branch

Published: Journal September 2021

Article from a NPQ Townsville Branch newsletter ‘The Native Gardener’ May 2021


Having been involved with orchids and native plants, for over 50 years, I tend to take it as read the change of gender suffix when a species is reclassified into another genus (of a different gender), eg. when Ascocentrum was moved to Vanda, and all the species names ending in ‘..um’ became ‘..a’.(Ed.)

It occurred to me that we have many members new to the world of orchids so instead of adding the usual note to the article, I feel an additional article asking, ‘Why use the Language of the Ancient Romans for Scientific Description?’ would be more appropriate.

The answer is straightforward – standardisation.

The Latin of the Ancient Romans is a ‘dead’ language. That is, it is no longer used by any society in the world for day-to-day use. Therefore, the meaning of words remains static. Also, Latin was the written word of the monasteries where in the Middle Ages most knowledge was held by the intelligentsia. Having a common language meant that thoughts and ideas could be shared among many language groups.

Our language, ‘Australian English’, is a living language. I have differentiated our language as ‘Australian English’ as any world traveller will testify that there are times when it is hard to understand what a user of ‘American English’ is trying to say. Sometimes it can be difficult to even understand a native of England! (or New Zealand).

‘Living’ languages, as opposed to ‘dead’ languages, are subject to shifts in the meaning of words. In the 1950s and 60s ‘cool!’ did not mean that the object had just been taken from a fridge. When I was growing up ‘deadly’ meant that the thing
was likely to kill you. Now ‘deadly’ can mean wonderful, fantastic, spectacular. Who would have thunk!! The living language of the Ancient Romans also evolved by usage and isolation so that there is now a group of languages referred to as the ‘Romance Languages’. [Of the major Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin, followed by Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, and the most divergent being French. Wikipedia]

Now back to Latin. Researching has led me to understand that Latin is a Free or Flexible word language. Modern English is structured so that the sentence usually consists of Subject, Action (Verb), Object, eg. “boy sees dog”. Latin can have the words in any order, most commonly Subject, Object, Verb, eg. “boy dog sees”. It is the word ending (suffix) that determines who is the doer and who is the being done to. The verb ending determines whether the action is past, present or future etc. [Latin is a highly inflected language, with three distinct genders, six or seven noun cases, five declensions, four verb conjugations, six tenses, three persons, three moods, two voices, two or three aspects, and two numbers. Wikipedia.]

Wow!! What does that all mean? It means that in Latin word endings are important!

The name of a species consists of a genus name and a specific name. As Latin has three genders (male, female, neuter), the specific name has to follow the gender of the genus. As a rule of thumb, ‘us’ = male, ‘a’ = female and ‘um’ = neuter.
I hope that this has enlightened and not confused the reader.


Latin is a dead language as dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans and now its killing me!!

Anon – school yard ditty

Did you Know?

Although Australian Aboriginal languages appear to have no connection to any other language group in the world, they are ‘free word’ languages like Latin, Greek, Persian, Romanian, Assyrian, Assamese, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, and Basque.

Did You Know?

Many experts list Tamil as the oldest living language (3,000 years) but some scholars of Aboriginal languages suggest that many Aboriginal languages could be up to 13,000 years old.

Learn a Second Language – it’s Good for Your Health

In 2013, researchers from the University of Edinburgh published a study that concluded that bilingual patients developed dementia, on average, four and a half years later than monolingual ones. They strongly suggested that bilingualism has a deep impact on neurological structures and processes of the brain.

Is it coincidence?

When we think classical art, we think Italy and France; When we think high fashion, we think France; When we think Haute Cuisine, we think France; When we think precision, we think Swiss; When we think engineering, we think Germany; When we think Industrial Revolution, we think

Italy and France use a Romance Language. Switzerland (parts of), Germany and Britain use a Germanic Language.

Does the structure of our native language influence what we do?