Message 2001-12-0010: Fwd: Fw: languages in PhyloCode

Sat, 17 Nov 2001 09:23:29 -0500

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Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2001 09:23:29 -0500
From: Philip Cantino <>
Subject: Fwd: Fw: languages in PhyloCode

>Why not do something like mandate that diagnoses be written in two
>of the six official languages of the UN: Arabic, Spanish, Chinese,
>Russian, English, and French; regardless of the language the paper's
>actually written in.  This would probably guarantee the highest
>possible readership; after all, there's a reason the UN chose those
>languages as official.  Latin could be retained as a seventh choice
>for its historical significance.
>Pete Buchholz
David Marjanovic wrote:

>I think this is a very good idea.
>Using symbols for definitions is one, too; we could easily invent
>some for qualifying clauses, such as the mathematical "without" sign
>\ . What about Pinnipedia = {Otaria byronia de Blainville 1820
>+ Odobenus rosmarus L. 1758 + Phoca vitulina L. 1758 \ Ursus arctos
>L. 1758, Canis lupus L. 1758}? (Means, the most recent common
>ancestor of the first three and all its descendants, if the latter
>two do not belong to them.) This would restrict words to
>apomorphy-based qualifying clauses and definitions.
>Just yesterday I've found the descriptions of 16 new species of, I
>think, Brazilian rainforest trees in the annals of 1999 of the
>Natural History Museum Vienna. They do contain "diagnoses" in Latin,
>but these are very short, barely longer than "5 -- 8 m high trees
>with long, narrow leaves and fruits that measure 2.5 cm in
>diameter". After these follow "descriptions" in English which repeat
>the diagnoses but add much more. I got the impression (just my
>personal impression) that the author regarded the Latin diagnoses as
>superfluous things required by bureaucracy and tried to keep them as
>short as possible. (The specific epithets are freely invented words
>designed to sound exotic and as far apart from Latin as possible.)

I agree that most botanists (at least those I have talked with) view
the Latin diagnosis as a formality (and a bit of a nuisance), and the
full description is provided in some other language--usually English.
I am not very committed to the retention of Latin as an option under
the PhyloCode.  On the other hand, I strongly oppose Pete Buchholz's
proposal (above), seconded by David Marjanovic.  These six languages
have presumably been chosen as the official languages of the UN
because they are the most widely spoken.  However, the key question
for us is what proportion of the world's systematic biologists (or
perhaps biologists in general) CAN'T read a particular language.
Scientific publications should be written in a language that a
maximal number of the likely readers can understand, even if it isn't
their first language.  Is there any doubt that English is the
language that is most widely understood (in writing) by the world's
scientists?  My guess is that number two would be French.  Among
systematic botanists, number two would probably be Latin, not French,
but I have learned from this exchange that this is probably not the
case for systematic zoologists.  I suspect that the proportion of the
world's scientists who can read Arabic is very low.  Ditto for
Chinese and Russian.  In other words, it is far more likely that a
scientist whose native language is Arabic, Chinese, or Russian can
read English than the reverse.

Doesn't the UN provide translators at its sessions?  If a delegate
speaks in Arabic, for example, isn't this translated into all of the
other official languages as needed by other delegates?  In contrast,
if a qualifying clause or a diagnosis were written in Arabic, who
would translate it for the many biologists who can't read this
language?  Requiring that definitions or diagnoses be written in two
of the six languages makes it more likely that one of them will be
understood, but it will be as much of a nuisance for the authors of
systematic papers as the botanical requirement for a Latin diagnosis
is.  And what if the two languages chosen are Chinese and Russian?  I
think this rule would be a huge impediment to communication.

Any of the following four options is fine with me:
1) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English or Latin (the current rule).
2) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English, Latin, or French.
3) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English or French.
4) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English.  [I think this is
less desirable for political reasons, but if this proposal is widely
supported by people who are not native English speakers, I would
withdraw this objection.]


Philip D. Cantino
Professor and Chair
Department of Environmental and Plant Biology
Ohio University
Athens, OH 45701-2979

Phone: (740) 593-1128; 593-1126
Fax: (740) 593-1130


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