Notes From Nature Talk

Nerdy language musing for scientists or programmers

  • HelenBennett57 by HelenBennett57

    Just musing here...

    We're dealing with language packs and translation into different languages at work, and I got thinking; what language are scientific names considered to be in?

    • Not Latin, because they often aren't
    • Not your language-of-choice (e.g. English), because the whole point of scientific names is that they're the same across all the world's languages

    So does that mean that logically, scientific names are a language all of their own? And if so, if you're writing software that uses scientific names and needs translating into many languages, then a given page/screen/thingy could be in at least two languages; the user's language-of-choice and Scientific Namespeak.

    It wouldn't be logical to include duplicate names in each different language's language pack, because then you'd have to manage them to avoid inconsistencies and they're not a part of that language... I think.

    In languages with other character sets, e.g. for Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Arabic/Russian, do you break out into Latin characters for scientific names, or are they rendered in the language's character set? How does that work for right-to-left languages?

    Would be very happy to hear from anyone with knowledge of how this is normally handled.


  • md68135 by md68135 scientist

    Hi @HelenBennett57 ,
    These are some great questions/thoughts.

    Scientific names are typically in latin or greek, but are expected to follow latin grammar. Many words are taken from other languages. Species names for places are a good example. For example, coloradensis means of Colorado or found in Colorado, as in the U.S. state.

    Different organisms have different rules for names. I know more about the code for plant names so I'll give you an example from that. The names are governed by the Code of Botanical Nomenclature ( Warning it's pretty esoteric stuff enough among botanists!

    When it comes to other languages the names need follow latin grammar so diacritical marks, among other things, have to be removed. You can read more about this here:

    As your point about a label having two language, I hadn't thought about it that way before : )
    I think of the scientific name as a special bit of information since they are standardized and can be verified against a known source. We can also reconcile synonyms among names so long are they are captured in are various databases.

    I am not sure I have added much, but happy to talk more about it.


  • am.zooni by am.zooni

    I'm relieved to know that I was (mostly) correct in thinking that the scientific names were Latin or Latinized foreign words. Even Linneus is a Latinized name (actually von Linne or something similar, if I recall correctly - school was a LONG time ago!).

    Wow! That's a massive book of rules! And I only waded partway through the preface ... not going to try to read any more of it, but it's fascinating to see how extensive and detailed it is. For example, the preface mentions the problem of naming fossils, which (while it never occurred to me before) clearly pose a difficult classification problem, since there is only partial information about how the organism lived and even looked. The people who make the rules really do have to deal with every possibility. Impressive work.


  • HelenBennett57 by HelenBennett57

    Oh my goodness, that is HUGE!

    Thank you very much for your informative answer. I was just nerding out peacefully musing about software design 😃 you've shown me a glimpse of a whole 'nother world.


  • md68135 by md68135 scientist

    So great. I love that you both find "The Code" interesting!