Dead Language, Living Names

latinbird.png Latin for Birdwatchers
Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Allen & Unwin, 2014
9781760110642

Recently I helped fill a display case at the Museum with native birds of the Whanganui area, and we were preparing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. For example, which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. But when I mentioned including the Latin name on each label, I could sense the resistance from the non-scientists on the team, and stopped to ponder where that came from.

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

Harrier Hawk

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey. | GaryNZ / Flickr

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right, but even so I’ve blogged a fairly-exhaustive Latin names style guide for journalists.

This book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, which I’ve been dipping into for the last few weeks, sounds like the most boring in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). There are seven different species all called Bellbirds, but the New Zealand one, Anthornis melanura, has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (ours). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name.

kereru300

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow. | digitaltrails / Flickr

New Zealand Robins or toutouwai aren’t robins either, but close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica. Our robin, Petroica longipes, is named for its habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. Because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. And sometimes Latin names just don’t make any sense: the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is in the genus Scotopelia, which means “pigeon of darkness” (what?). But for all their flaws, Latin names are full of stories, charmingly brought out by this book’s many sidebars and anecdotes; these, plus the abundant 19th century illustrations, would make it a great gift for a bird lover.

(A version of this appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015)

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