The Grammarphobia Blog

Garden variety Latin

Q: I am from Italy where I studied Latin in school. I now live in the US and belong to an orchid society. My question is about the pronunciation of botanical names that end in ii, like B. lobbii and P. mannii. I was taught to pronounce the second i like the one in “machine,” but Americans pronounce it like the one in “fine.” Which is right?

A: I’m simplifying things here, but there are lots of different Latins – church Latin, botanical Latin, schoolhouse Latin, etc. – with lots of different pronunciations. The Latin taught in schools, for instance, has been pronounced in different ways in different countries.

Interestingly, the ancient pronunciation wasn’t accurately reconstructed until around 1900, according to a paper by Michael A. Covington, a linguist at the University of Georgia.

The scholars who did this relied, among other things, on the writings of Roman grammarians who provided abundant details on how the language sounded.

In ancient times, according to Covington, the vowel i could be pronounced two ways: as in “sit” or as in “machine.” (The Latin i could also act as a consonant, but I won’t get into that here.)

The letters ii were pronounced as two i‘s in succession, forming two syllables. In a word that ended with ii – that is, a word with either a possessive or a plural Latin ending – the first i would be pronounced as in “sit” and the second as in “machine.”

So how would an ancient Roman have pronounced B. lobbii and P. mannii if he had somehow tumbled through space and time to come across these orchids?

Bulbophyllum lobbii is also known as Lobb’s Bulbophyllum (it was discovered by Thomas Lobb in Java in 1846). And Phalaenopsis mannii is also known as Mann’s Phalaenopsis (it was discovered by Gustav Mann in Sikkim in 1868).

In pronouncing a possessive (technically, a genitive) word like lobbii or mannii, a Roman would have sounded the first i like the one in “sit” and the second i like the one in “machine.”

However, English-speaking plant people (gardeners, horticulturalists, botanists, etc.) generally pronounce the second i in a Latin name like lobbii or mannii as in “fine.”

That’s also the traditional way that British schoolchildren were taught to pronounce the last i in a Latin word ending in two i‘s, which I suspect may have had an influence on the botanical pronunciation in the US.

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