Category: Taxonomy

Latin names and why we use them in the hobby.

Latin, eh?

Back in mid 1758 a Swedish scientist devised a universal system to classify all living beings, the Systema Naturae (Nature’s System) which is still used today. To keep it universal, Latin was the chosen language as it is a dead language, neutral, and not subject to changes.

The scientist’s name was Carl von Linné, and true to his system he latinised his name to Linnaeus. This fact is a hint of things to come for many of what we call “Latin” names are really latinised names from other languages, primarily Greek. For example, the genus that gave us the common name tetra is Tetragonopterus. The only piece of Latin in this name is the masculine suffix -us the rest is composed of three Greek words: tetra (four), gonos (side) and pteron (wing or fin). A true Latin name would be something like Quadrilateripinnius, and the common name for the fish in the group might be “quadri”. How do you like those neon quadris?

Other languages can be latinised also, and this is quite evident when people or place names are used. For example Carnegiella and Eichhornia are two genera derived from the names Carnegie and Eichhorn respectively. For species names one uses the Latin suffix -i for masculine names and the Latin suffix -ae for feminine names. For example Melanotaenia boesemani named after Marinus Böseman and Carnegiella marthae named after Martha Ruth Myers (Mrs. G. S. Myers). Note that accents are not used so the name Böseman becomes Boeseman (we don’t use œ anymore). The same rule seems to apply to place names. For example Corydoras metae is named after the river Meta in Colombia. Usually though the suffix -ensis is used to denote that the organism in question is from that locale, as in Aequidens portalegrensis named after the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil.

As you may have noticed, names have gender in Latin and it is customary to match the species’ gender with the genus’ gender. For example note how the species name of the guppy changed when it was reclassified from Lebistes reticulatus to Poecilia reticulata. The genus Lebistes is masculine and the genus Poecilia is feminine. How does one know if a name is masculine or feminine? Well, the last vowel gives you a clue: a is feminine; e can be either; i, o and u are masculine. Of course there are exceptions to every rule so when a genus is described, the gender is given so that other scientists know how to name the species. If a species is named after a person or a place, the gender of the person or place name overrules the gender for the genus.

Once you know the rules and some Greek and Latin radicals many of the scientific names start to make sense. Some are very descriptive, some are very creative, some are interesting and others make you wonder what the scientist was thinking at the time. Here are some examples:


: four-sided finsTanichthys albonubes:

Tan’s fish, white clouds. This is the white-cloud minnow.Chaca chaca

: “chaca” is the sound this catfish makes when held out of the water!Aequidens

: with teeth of same length.Trichogaster trichopterus

: hair-belly hair-fin. The blue gourami.

You may wonder why scientists go to such trouble to create these names, and us too to remember them. Well, Linnaeus wanted a system that was unique and universal. Scientific names are standardized, unique, are valid all over the world, and group related fish together. On the other hand, common names are not standardized, are not unique, are limited by language, and can’t be relied to group related fish together (e.g. consider the great white shark, a true shark; the iridescent shark, a catfish; and the rainbow shark, a cyprinid). For an example of lack of uniqueness, I know of three very different cichlids that are known by the same common name of flag cichlid: the festivum (Mesonauta festiva), the curviceps (Laetacara curviceps), and the angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare). The latter is called acará bandeira in Portuguese, which translates into flag cichlid.

Now, cichlidiots reading this article will be quickly to point out that Laetacara curviceps is also known as Aequidens curviceps and Mesonauta festiva is also known as Cichlasoma festivum. Aren’t these names supposed to be unique? You bet they are. The names still uniquely describe one species of fish. Even though the fish may have more than one name, only one is current. The other names are called synonyms and kept for past reference only. Scientists must make sure that these names are unique, and that the oldest known species name remains. The reason for the changes is that as the body of knowledge increases, certain species that were grouped together need to be split up and re-grouped. That creates new genera and new names that we must learn. It is not fun, but it is for a good reason.

Something else that most people do not find fun is the pronunciation of scientific names. Having a Latin-based language (Portuguese) as my first language, I find listening to the pronunciation of Latin names in North America a painful experience. All the pronunciation guides I have seen treat Latin names as if they were English names. I found out why in Innes’ Exotic Aquarium Fishes. A group of nineteenth century English botanists decided to “modernize” Latin and Greek names by giving English pronunciation to the vowels. So much for universality! Why bother with a neutral language if you are going to change it to suit your pronunciation needs? What if Linnaeus decided that Latin was to be pronounced as Swedish? This “modern” system is what we see in North American publications. I haven’t seen it in European publications.

Here is the “modern” pronunciation of Latin vowels, but to be sure of the “correct” pronunciation one must use the accented version of the Latin name, which is rarely ever found in books these days. Follow this key and you are sure to pronounce Latin names as if they were English.


long, as in hay; á short, as in hat; ä broad as in bar.è

long, as in key; é short, as in met.ì

long, as in tie; í short, as in hit.ò

long, as in toe; ó short, as in top.ù

long, as in cue; ú short, as in nut.

As a comparison, here is the true Latin pronunciation of vowels. Note how consistent the sounds are compared to the above system.


as in father, or short as in but. But not as in cat.e

as in they, or short as in net.i

as in keep, or short as in pit.o

as in note, or short as in not.u

as in food, or short as in put.y

only found in Greek words, assimilated to i.

The letter ‘u’ was actually not in the Latin alphabet, ‘v’ was used instead.

The question is when to use the short or the long version of the vowels. For that one must consult a Latin dictionary for it is not obvious from visual inspection alone. In a dictionary long vowels are marked with macron ( ¯ ) placed above them. When in doubt, the short form will get you by.

Two vowels are always pronounced separately unless they form a diphthong (where they run together or glide). The Latin diphthongs are:


as in

as in cow oe

as in soilei

as in reignue

as in you ui

as in quick

Also, some consonants differ from their English pronunciations:


as in English except before ‘s’ and ‘t’ when it is pronounced ‘p’.c

as ‘k’,

as ‘k’, it is an emphasized ‘c’.g

as in game, never as in ginger.s

as in sun, not as in was (where it has a little of a ‘z’ sound).t

as in table, never as in nation.v

always as wish, never as in the English ‘v’.x

always as in exceed, never as in example.

Latin was, to a large degree, phonetically written. So when pronouncing Latin names, make sure you pronounce every syllable. You can ignore the first consonant in the ‘pt’ and ‘ct’ pairs. Some of the above pronunciations may not sound correct, particularly given some words that have become very familiar to us in English. Caesar is a perfect example, but guess where the word “Kaiser” came from? Try it out on your favorite scientific names. If this all sounds foreign to you it should, after all it is Latin not English!

Now, how does one pronounce words like Moenkhausia, goodeid, jacobfreibergi, Farlowella? There is no need to get all tongue-twisted. The easiest thing to do is to find out how to pronounce the person’s name in its original language, then pronounce the Latin suffix after it: monk-hous’e-a, goode-id, yacob-fryberg’ee, farlow-ella.

So, what do to next? Use the “modern” pronunciation of the proper Latin one? I think it all depends on your personality and the people you converse “Latin” names with. Using the “modern” form is easier for English speakers and it is surely widespread here. The drawback is that it goes against the goal of scientific names being universal. Non-English speakers won’t necessarily understand what you say. On the other hand if you use proper Latin pronunciation, people familiar with the “modern” form will think you are mispronouncing names. Considering the universality goal of scientific names, the fact that most tropical fish come from non-English speaking countries, and that a significant portion of the scientific body of knowledge also comes from non-English speaking countries, I’ll stick to as true a Latin pronunciation as I can.


Allen, Gerald R. (1995). Rainbowfishes In Nature and in the Aquarium. Melle, Germany: Tetra-Verlag.

Betts, Gavin (1992). Teach Yourself Latin, A Complete Course. Chicago, IL: NTC Publishing Group.

Guralnik, David B. (ed.) (1984). Webster’s New World Dictionary. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Handford, S. A. (1966). Pocket Latin Dictionary. Berlin and Munich, Germany: Langenscheidt KG.

Innes, William T. (1979). Exotic Aquarium Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications, Inc.

Pasquier, Roger F. (1983). “The Diversity of Birdlife”. In Poole, Robert M. (ed.). The Wonder of Birds. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society. pp. 18-53.

Reis, Roberto E. ?