(The following is a reprint of an article by the late Gene Howell writing for the Bonsai Society of Brevard in October 2001.)
Last month, the newsletter introduced a reason for botanical names. Pronouncing them can be problematic. Six or seven syllables can be intimidating to think about without making an idiot of you. When that word contains several vowels strung together, it is apparent that you cannot pronounce all of them or your tongue will end up tied in a knot. So which do you pronounce?
Here are a few simple rules for pronouncing the names. The more you use the botanical names, the easier it becomes without stumbling on every other syllable.
- All vowels, except diphthongs (two vowels written together), are pronounced.
- A vowel at the end of a word has a long sound, except when it is the vowel “a”.
- An “a” at the end has the uh sound, as in idea
- A diphthong is generally pronounced as a single vowel. These are “ae” and “oe”, in which case only the “e” is pronounced. Also “oi”, which is pronounced as in “oil”; “eu” which is pronounced “you”; “ai” which is pronounced as in “hay” and “au” which is pronounced as in “August”.
- In family names “ae” is pronounced “e”, as in bee.
- “Ch” has the “k” sound, except in words derived from a language other than Greek (don’t ask me which ones these are, cause I don’t have the slightest idea).
- “C” followed by “ae”, “e”, “oe”, “i”, or “y” has a soft “s” sound.
- When “C” is followed by “a”, “o”, “oi”, or “u” it has the hard “k” sound
There are many other rules I can’t mention due to lack of space, but at this point my brain is beginning to fog over. I can only imagine the condition of yours after plowing through all this. Don’t be discouraged though, because it will actually begin to clear up after going through it a couple of times.
After absorbing as much as you can without falling asleep, dig out one of your bonsai or gardening books and give some of the botanical names a try. Keep these rules handy as you do so and you will quickly learn the rules.
By the way, you will probably never remember all of these rules (I certainly don’t), but if you keep this information available, you will be able to correctly pronounce at least 90% of the botanical names you come across.