Friday, December 23, 2011

Latin passes from the sciences: Botany finally goes vernacular!

Carolus Linnaeus

The Latin language is experiencing a revival in the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope issued a motu propio authorizing the celebration of the Latin Mass anywhere and at all times.  The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s allowed for major reforms in how Catholics worship. Perhaps the most significant reform is the use of the vernacular language at Mass. While the council really said that the vernacular was the exception and the Latin was the norm, it was up to the local bishops to implement how this was to be done and most of them opted for the vernacular Mass. And so almost all that is Latin from the Gregorian chants, the canon and the prayers were lost in order to be replaced by pop choirs and guitars!

The science of botany remained an anachronism in all of these. And so 42 years after the Roman Catholic Church "caught up" with the times, Botany finally does so by dispensing with the requirement which was formalized by Linnaeus that new species descriptions should be in Latin. The reason is that "there is a need to name plants before they disappear".

But this also represents that classical education has long passed and that the teaching of Latin whether this be botanical or classical is almost gone that few scientists are able to use the language.

Latin however assures exactness of meaning since it is a "dead" language. In malacology,  "lirae" means only "grooves" in the shell of gastropods and nothing else. It is for a similar reason that the Vatican when it issues important documents that deal with Church doctrine, always has the Latin text as the "Editio Typica". Official translations will be issued in English, French, Spanish, Russian, German, Chinese etc but the Latin remains the definitive one. The Church cannot afford to be unclear in meaning especially when it deals with it's flock's souls! In the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus which allowed for former Anglican priests to function as Catholic priests even when married, there was a real need to be extremely clear in meaning lest misinterpretations happen.

Another example why the Latin remains important is in the speech of Pope John Paul II in 1996 to the Pontifical Academy of Science where he states the acceptance of the Catholic Church of evolution as a remarkable scientific theory in which independent lines of evidence supports. However, even if he said it in French, the English translation originally was evolution as "more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution" which was rather a direct translation from the French. The Vatican issued a revised translation that aside from looking at the meaning in French (a Latin derived language to start with) also took into account of the Latin meaning of Pope Pius XII's Humani Generis which considered evolution as a hypothesis and from which John Paul II referenced his ideas.

While the naming of plants won't affect the salvation or damnation of Catholics, there is also a need for definitive meanings in describing why a certain species of plant remains unique. Botanical Latin allowed for that. But that now has changed. In Zoology, Latin descriptions were once de rigeur but was replaced by descriptions in the major European languages, starting with French and German and later replaced by English (which is now the dominant language to describe species) However even in the 21st century, species are still being described in German, Spanish, French, Latvian etc. I received a volume of new descriptions of snails in Latvian. In Europe, descriptions may be written in any of the EU's languages. In some books, there is an English description and a Latin description too.

Malacological and botanical databases still have descriptions in Latin and thus a knowledge of Latin is needed. But having studied Latin in order to understand biodiversity, I am very much aware that there is a need to know a little Latin and Greek for most of the scientific terms even in their Anglicized version have Latin or Greek roots.  Once you know what the roots mean, then it is much easier to understand the scientific concept especially in undergrad courses in anatomy, taxonomy and systematics.

In President Ferdinand Marcos' biography there was an anecdote retold by his biology high school professor at UP High about the young Marcos frustrations in having to learn Latin names, descriptions in a taxonomy class in the 1930s.

Marcos complained to his teacher "What do I need these Latin terms and taxonomy if I am to become a lawyer?" The teacher retorted "This will teach you discipline and sharpness of mind which you will need in law school"

Apparently the teacher was right since Marcos became a lawyer, savvy politician and president of the Philippines. Marcos when he was at the height of his powers as president, thanked this high school teacher before he passed away.

Marcos' high school teacher epitomizes why Latin was important in education. It is important then as now. Learning Latin sharpens the mind and as an added bonus allows for the easy learning of the European languages (even Japanese as one Latinist once testified!).

While botany and zoology have gone vernacular, much of the words used to describe new species have Latin origins, thus the need for a glossary of scientific terms and their Latin or Greek roots.

The late Emperor Hirohito of Japan who was also a renowned specialist in hydrozoans in the 1950s gave an audience to a Russian scientist who also was an expert in the same taxonomic group. Since there was no interpreter present, the two scientists understood each other in scientific Latin and were able to clarify the species status of a hydroid. Now I wonder that sounded!

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