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and started to conduct their own systematic research. A pioneer in
this respect was the Belgian Vesalius, who in the sixteenth century
started to use dissections as a way of investigating human anatomy.
In the seventeenth century the Englishman William Harvey discovered
how the circulation of the blood works and published his discovery
in a document with the grand title Exercitátio anatómica de motu
cordis et sánguinis in animálibus ˜An anatomical disquisition on the
movement of the heart and blood in animals™. Thereafter further
discoveries were made in quick succession, and gradually, though
with a long delay, these led to new ways of treating sick people.
This new development did not lead to a change of language. The
innovators wrote and discussed matters in Latin just as their predeces-
sors had done, as indeed was necessary if their ideas were to become
widely known amongst their international peers. It was also dif¬cult
to translate medical terminology into the national languages. The
learned academic tradition is and always has been very strong among
doctors, and so they stuck to Latin as their professional language for a
very long time. Until the eighteenth century it was very common for
doctors to speak Latin to each other, and in Britain it was only in the
mid-twentieth century that it ceased to be necessary to have a know-
ledge of Latin to be accepted as a student of medicine.
Things are obviously different these days, but medical language
is just as full of Latin and Greek words as it ever was. Hence doctors
and other health workers have to learn hundreds or thousands of
special terms which have no connection with their native language.

A natural history of Latin

This may be hard work, but it has its advantages. Any specialized
discipline has to have its own terminology, and a doctor for example
needs to have names for all the muscles in the body. Everyone in the
world has the same muscles whatever their language, and for most
muscles it is only doctors and other specialists who ever have reason to
refer to them by name.The words are never used in everyday language.
Hence it would be both impractical and unwise to invent completely
new names for them in each language. A common international
terminology serves to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.
It is not of course necessary that these terms come from Latin and
Greek, but because of the way medicine developed over the centuries,
that is what we have, and there is no reason to change things now.
Indeed, one advantage is that neither Latin nor Ancient Greek are
spoken languages today, which means that no country has priority in
the sense that its language is the basis of the international termino-
logy. Contrast the position of English, which forms the basis of inter-
national usage in a more recent discipline such as computer science.
It is obviously an advantage for people who have to learn these
terms if they know a bit of Latin. Even the small doses that can be
found in this book will probably make it easier to understand quite a
few words. If you know that natus means ˜born™ and that prae means
˜before™, it is not dif¬cult to guess that prenatal damage is damage
that occurs before the child is born. However, it would take a book of
its own to explain medical vocabulary in full. Such books do exist,
and we cannot go into more detail here. But in the vocabulary of
medicine Latin (and Ancient Greek) are still very much alive and will
continue to be so for the foreseeable future.The same is true in many
other ¬elds.

Linnaeus and Latin

Your heart may lift when you come upon a glade full of Anemóne
nemorósa. You may ˜twitch™ at the sight of a Motacilla alba, but if

Latin and Europe

against all the odds you come across an Ursus arctos, you had better
get out of the way at once.
These are the Latin names for the wood anemone, the wagtail,
and the brown bear respectively. In botany and zoology every
species has its established Latin name. Today we seldom use these
names in ordinary English texts like the above, but in any circum-
stance in which zoologists or botanists communicate with each
other, they use the Latin terms for the species. It is not just the name
which is in Latin; each species is also required to have an of¬cial
description in Latin. Anyone who discovers a new species has to
write and publish such a description.Within these sciences Latin still
has an important practical use.
The historical explanation for this state of affairs has much to do
with the tradition of medicine, which we have already discussed. For
many years within European universities and academies the natural
sciences took a back seat. Animals and plants were only really stud-
ied by doctors for their possible applications in medicine and related
¬elds.The tradition of using Latin therefore became as strong within
these sciences as it was in medicine.
During the eighteenth century, however, the natural sciences
came on apace and gradually acquired their own identity inde-
pendent of medicine. One of the pioneers was Carl von Linn©, a
Swede whose name, usually and very appropriately in its Latin
form, Linnaeus, is known all over the world, at least by those who
are interested in his ¬eld. Linnaeus was the son of a vicar from
Småland in southern Sweden, and he studied in Lund and Uppsala
before venturing abroad. In 1735 he went to Holland, where he
became a doctor of medicine but also published in quick succession a
number of pioneering works on botany. All these books were in
Latin. Apart from Swedish that was the only language which
Linnaeus had mastered, and just as for any scientist of his day it
formed a necessary foundation for his career. He did not need any
other languages, since he could take it for granted that people who
had chosen to devote themselves to any kind of science would be able
to read Latin.

A natural history of Latin

Linnaeus was a great systematizer. He endeavoured to sort all
living species into a coherent hierarchical classi¬cation. A number of
species are grouped together to form a genus (plural genera, which
literally means ˜kind™ or™ sort™). A group of genera are then united
into a larger group called an ˜order™ (in Latin ordo), a group of orders
yields a ˜class™ (classis), and ¬nally several classes make up a kingdom
(regnum). Every species is allocated its place in this overarching sys-
tem, which we still use to this day for both animals and plants
(although obviously the details have been modi¬ed since Linnaeus™
time). For instance, the species of great tits (Parus major) belongs to
the genus Titmice (Paridae), which is part of the order Passeriformes,
which is a subgroup of the class of birds (Aves), which in turn belong
to the larger class of Vertebrates. At the top stands the kingdom of
animals (regnum animalium). Linnaeus was not the only person to
have developed a scheme of this kind, but he was a great classi¬er and
namer, and it was his system that gained wide acceptance.
When it comes to plants, his great achievement was the so-called
sexual system. The idea was to classify plants according to the
appearance of their reproductive organs, more precisely according to
how many stamens and pistils the ¬‚ower has. These were clear and
simple criteria, which brought order to the mess of different classi¬-
cations which botanists had used before his time. Today the sexual
system has been abandoned, as over the years it has been shown to
bring together plants with quite different characteristics in an arbit-
rary way. The introduction of other criteria has been accepted.
Furthermore, the whole of the present system of classi¬cation is
tottering, as scientists have started measuring the degree of similar-
ity among the DNA of a variety of species, with results that differ
considerably from the established truths.
Nonetheless many of Linnaeus™ achievements live on, most import-
antly his system of naming, which remains unchallenged. Before
Linnaeus it was not at all clear how different plants and animals
should be named, and the concept of species was also controversial.
Linnaeus was convinced that every living creature belonged to a separ-
ate species, and one of the goals he set himself was to give each and

Latin and Europe

every one of the species an unambiguous name. In the 1750s he pub-
lished Latin descriptions with names of all the plants and animals
which were known at that time, and with few exceptions those names
are still valid. Of course many new species have been discovered since
then, but they have always been named according to Linnaeus™ prin-
ciples. These require that the name must be in Latin, and that it must
consist of two words, the so-called ˜binomial™ system.The ¬rst word is
a noun which is usually common for all the species within the family
which the species belongs to (called the ˜generic name™). Wherever
possible Linnaeus used existing Latin words: ursus means ˜bear™ in
Latin, and motacilla means ˜wagtail™.The word anemone is a Latinized
form of the Greek word for that ¬‚ower. The second word is a quali¬er
of the ¬rst and is called the ˜speci¬c name™. Very often it is a Latin
adjective, as in Motacilla alba, literally ˜white wagtail™. The quali¬er
distinguishes the name of the wagtail from its relatives, such as the
yellow wagtail, Motacilla ¬‚ava, literally ˜yellow wagtail™, and the grey
wagtail, Motacilla cin©rea, literally ˜ash-coloured wagtail™.
It is the same with the name of the wood anemone, Anemone
nemorosa, literally ˜grove anemone™.The adjective nemorosus comes
from nemus ˜grove™, and means ˜belonging to grove™ or simply ˜grove™
as an attributive. The quali¬er distinguishes it from, for example, the
Anemone sylvestris,literally ˜wood anemone™ (the adjective sylvestris,
also spelled silvestris, comes from silva, ˜wood™), which in English is
sometimes called ˜snowdrop anemone™. The potential confusion that
arises from popular names, which differ from place to place, make a
clear and consistent naming system essential.A famous example is the
word robin,which refers to Erithacus robicula in Britain and to Turdus
migratorius in the United States.
In the case of the brown bear, the second name is also a noun, arctos,
which is quite simply the Latin form of the Greek word for bear. The
name Ursus arctos actually means ˜bear bear™. Not particularly
informative, you might think, but the speci¬c name still serves a
purpose in the sense that it distinguishes the brown bear from
other species of bears such as for example Ursus Americanus, the
American black bear.

A natural history of Latin

Names like this clearly have their own intrinsic meaning, but quite
a few names of species are in fact almost arbitrary, like the ones that
were constructed from the name of the discoverer or some place.They
may be modern and non-Latin in origin but they must still always
have a Latin form. An example is the group of plants called woodsia
in English. This is the Latin name derived from the name of the
nineteenth-century British botanist Joseph Woods, who ¬rst identi¬ed
the plant. One species of this plant, called in English the Rusty or
Fragrant Woodsia, has as its Latin name Woodsia ilvensis.The speci¬c
name is an adjective meaning ˜coming from Elba™, which we presume
is where he ¬rst identi¬ed it.This species is slightly different from the
Northern Woodsia, which is called Woodsia alpina in Latin.
These examples are enough to show how the Latin names are
constructed. Formally they are always Latin words with correct
Latin endings. Sometimes the word stems also come from Latin, but
very often they are Greek, and not infrequently from a completely
different language. There are even a few words which are sheer non-
sense and do not mean anything at all. But whatever the source of
the individual words, in the domains of botany and zoology Latin is
a language which guarantees that the terminology is correct and
consistent.The system which Linnaeus introduced has turned out to
be so good that it does not just live on but is continously being
extended and added to. For Linnaeus, as we have seen, it was a mat-
ter of course to use Latin for his names, as it was the only scienti¬c
language available in his day. Latin may have disappeared from most
other sciences, but when it comes to the naming of species it is most
probably going to stay for the foreseeable future. There is simply
nothing else that works as well.

Physicists, chemists, and others

Arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy were three of the artes
liberales which formed part of the curriculum in the Middle Ages.

Latin and Europe

For a long time this involved nothing more than handing on a
portion of the knowledge that had been acquired in classical times.It was
not until the thirteenth century that an interest in more advanced
mathematics and physics was rekindled, and the truly spectacular
advances only came in the seventeenth century.The greatest upheaval
took place in astronomy. The Greeks and Romans in fact knew a
great deal about celestial phenomena and obviously had names for
what they saw. Even today we still use the same names the Romans
used for the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, all of
which are names of the Roman gods. The three planets which have
been discovered in modern times have likewise been named after
other Roman gods: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The ancients also
grouped the stars into constellations to which they gave names, and
many of these are still in use today such as Leo (˜lion™) and G©mini
In antiquity everyone thought that the earth was the centre of the
universe, and that the sun, the moon, and all the other celestial bod-
ies revolved around it. Careful observation and precise mathemat-
ical calculation gradually led to the conclusion that it was the earth
that orbited the sun rather than vice versa. This idea, ¬rst developed
by Copernicus in the early sixteenth century, was set against the
traditional, so-called geocentric view in a famous book, Dialogue
Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published by the Italian
astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1632. As is well known, this book
caused a furore. The Church declared Galileo™s views to be heretical,
and he had to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
One of the reasons why Galileo was dangerous from the Church™s
point of view had to do with language. He did not always write in
Latin, as almost all other scholars did at that time. His Dialogue is
written in Italian, and moreover in a relatively accessible style,
exploiting, as the title indicates, the then popular dialogue form in
which the argument is presented as a conversation between advo-
cates of the two opposing positions. He was read by many people,
even outside the universities. When ordinary people in Italy were
able to read things that went against the claims of the Church,

A natural history of Latin

the Pope and his men struck hard, and prohibited the book™s
circulation. That did not help in the long run. The book was soon
known all over Europe. It was speedily translated into Latin and
became accessible to educated people everywhere.
The fact that the translation was made shows that Latin was still


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