I might get myself banned from paleontology for this, but I’m going to share a secret.
I know how to pronounce all those crazy scientific names, even ones I’ve never seen before. And I’m going to tell you how to do it too.
Fact is, at meetings like the one I’m at right now (the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting), you’ll hear lots of scientific names pronounced in lots of different ways.
And they’re all correct.
All right, the names probably aren’t always pronounced like the original authors wanted them to be pronounced. I guess in terms of ‘correctness,’ the naming author’s intended pronunciation is the true pronunciation.
But, let’s face it, a lot of these original authors are, well, er, extinct. We can’t ask them what they had in mind, so we just pronounce the names like our advisors pronounced them. Occasionally, the pronunciation of a particular animal’s name becomes a topic of discussion. Certainly, it’s possible which people had what advisor based upon how they might pronounce a particular species name.
Take Plesiadapis, for example. Some pronounce it Please-ee-a-DAY-pis. Others say Please-ee-ADD-i-puss. It’s the same name, just different pronunciations.
What really makes the pronunciation of a technical name ‘correct’ isn’t whether you were able to ask the original namer what they had in mind. Really, and here’s the trick, it’s about making it sound easy and natural.
If you take a scientific name, say Lepisosteus (the gar fish). You want to be able to pronounce the word, but there’s no one to tell you how to do it.
Start by breaking down the word into syllables. Then pronounce those.
Lep-is-os-te-us. Lep-iss-oss-tea-us. Or maybe Leap-iss-oss-tea-us.
Now, practice that until it sounds like the most natural thing you’ve ever said. Say it over and over again, until there is no other way to say it.
It’s not about getting it technically correct. It’s about convincing the listener that you know what you’re talking about. If it rolls of your tongue, you’ve obviously got it right. You should be listened to.
Once in a while, you’ll find out that your pronunciation isn’t the more commonly used one, but that’s OK. Everyone else in the world, the lay public and your extended family, will think you know your stuff. And you do. Really.
Now, practice with some other words. Here’s a bunch of Paleocene mammal names you can work with.
Hopefully, I won’t get lynched at sometime during this meeting for having shared this deep, dark secret!