Botanical Latin
Lesson 1 - Alphabet and Pronunciation

a project of
V. F. Thomas Co. - 167 Thorne Mountain Road - Canton, Maine  04221

(updated 15 January 2022)

This lesson introduces you to the Latin alphabet and how to pronounce Latin words.

Alphabet. The alphabet of the ancient Romans was ultimately composed of 24 letters and is the same alphabet that we use minus j and w. In botanical Latin, you will encounter all 26 letters of our alphabet.

Pronunciation. Pronunciation involves (1) the sounds of individual letters and diphthongs (i.e., two vowels pronounced as a single sound) and (2) stress, the choice of which syllable to emphasize. There are two main systems for pronouncing Latin, one followed by those who study classical Latin and are trying to reproduce the sounds deemed to be used by the ancient Romans, and the other followed by botanists and gardeners. For the strict purpose of translating Latin descriptions for one’s own benefit, it is not necessary to know how to pronounce words. However, because it is almost certain that you will have to communicate with someone during the process of translation, it is important to learn one or both systems. If you plan to study any classical Latin by authors such as Caesar, Ovid, or Cicero, it is recommended that you learn the reformed academic pronunciation. If your Latin study will be restricted to botanical matters, you can get away with knowing/using just the traditional English pronunciation. Following is a table describing the sounds of letters and diphthongs in each system.

letters, diphthongs, and other combinations Reformed Academic (an approximation of ancient Roman pronunciation, rarely heard today as few of them are still around) Traditional English (used by botanists and gardeners)
a (long) a as in father a as in fate
a (short) first a in apart fat
b bird
c cat hard c as in cat before a (but not ae), o (but not oe), and u
soft c as in center before ae, e, i, oe, and y
d dog
e (long) e in they me
e (short) pet
f fog
g go hard g as in go before a (but not ae), o (but not oe), and u
soft g as in gem before ae, e, i, oe, and y
h hot
i (as a long vowel) machine ice
i (as a short vowel) pin
i (as a consonant) y in yes
j not in classical Latin jump
k kite
l let
m mud
n net
o (long) note
o (short) not
p pig
q (always followed by u) quick
r trilled not trilled
s sit (never a z sound) sit, but with a z sound (as in ease) at the end of a word
t table table; sh when ti occurs inside a word
u (long) rude
u (short) put tub
v like the w in water van
w not in classical Latin water
x ax (never a z sound) xylem at the beginning of a word; x elsewhere
y (long) u in French pur by
y (short) u in French tu cynical
z [dz as in adze?] zoo
ae ai in aisle ea in meat
au ou in house aw in bawl
ei reign height
eu [?] eu in euphonium
oe oi in toil ee in bee
ui uy in Spanish muy ruin
bs, bt ps, pt bs, bt
ch ckh in blockhead chronology
ph uphill phonetics
th hothouse think
double consonants (e.g., rr, tt) both pronounced (as in car run and admit ten) pronounced as a single consonant
ps, pt, ct, cn, gn, mn at the beginning of a word first letter is silent first letter is silent (like the h in hcocoa)

Syllables. A syllable is a group of contiguous letters in a word that (1) contains a single vowel or a diphthong, (2) may contain one or more consonants, and (3) is pronounced as a single unit. The rules for dividing a word into syllables are fairly straightforward.
    1. A break comes between two vowels or between a vowel and a diphthong.
    2. When a single consonant falls between two vowels, that consonant begins a new syllable.
    3. When two or more consonants fall between vowels, usually the last consonant begins a new syllable. Note: a stop (b, c, d, g, p, t) followed by a liquid (l, r) count as a single consonant and begin a new syllable. Also treated as a single consonant are qu, ch, ph, and th.
Three syllables of a word have names. They are (starting with the last one in a word and moving toward the beginning of the word): ultima, penult, and antepenult.

General rules of pronunciation and stress (accent). Here are some general rules about pronouncing botanical Latin words, including scientific names.
    1. Every vowel (unless it is part of a diphthong) is pronounced; e.g., the specific epithet ophioglossoides has seven syllables and is pronounced (following the traditional English pronunciation described in the table above) awe-fee-owe-gloss-so-EYE-deez. A diphthong counts as a single vowel; e.g., the orchid genus Coeloglossum has four syllables and is pronounced see-low-GLOSS-sum, again following the English pronunciation.
    2. For words of two syllables, accent the penult (e.g., Carex is pronounced KAY-rex).
    3. For words of three or more syllables,
        a. Stress the penult when it is long; i.e.,
            i. when it ends in a long vowel (e.g., plantarum is plan-TAY-rum),
            ii. when it ends in a diphthong (e.g., Bolboschoenus is bowl-boe-SKEE-nus),
            iii. when two consonants separate the last two vowels (e.g., angustisegmentum is an-guss-tee-seg-MEN-tum), and
            iv. when the vowel of the penult is followed by x (e.g., Adoxa is a-DOX-uh) or z (e.g., Glycyrrhiza is glie-sih-RYE-zuh).
        b. Otherwise, stress the antepenult (e.g., multifidum is mull-TIH-fih-dum.
Now all this having been said, these rules cannot be strictly applied when a word such as a specific epithet was created to commemorate a person or a place.