York Museums Trust

< Back to Blog

Latin and Greek words in Linnaean taxonomy by Dr Christos Giamakis

Taxonomy in the field of biology is a practice with a long history, starting with Aristotle to Linnaeus and from them to our times. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) was among the first who tried to provide a system of classification for animals and plants. It is telling that even the word taxonomy itself has a Greek root, as it consists of taxis ‘order’ and nomos ‘law’. Even though some of Aristotle’s classifications remained unchanged for centuries, he never followed a consistent approach as his notes were drawn from anatomy, physiology, and ethnology. His student Theophrastus (373–288 BC), divided plants based on their origin, such as spontaneous generation, birth from seeds, roots, branches, and trunks. During the period of the Roman Empire, the historian Pliny the Elder (23–79 BC) also attempted to classify the natural world, but again without any real methodology. It was during the Renaissance that European scientists took a real interest in creating a sensible classification system. Expeditions to other continents provided a constant supply of exciting new animals and plans to be studied, greatly enhancing their knowledge of the living world.

Figure 1. Carolus Linnaeus. Line engraving by C. C. B. Bervic, 1779, after A. Roslin, 1775. Wellcome Library London (ICV No 3800; Photo number: V0003600) CC BY 4.0.

Within this context, Linnaeus’ (Fig. 1) emergence through the publication of his two works Systema Naturae (1735) and Species Plantarum (1753), marked the beginning of a true revolution. His consistent and systematic methodology provided the basis for an organised approach to taxonomy, standardising the nomenclature and minimising ambiguous elements. He was the first one to suggest the use of a binomial nomenclature, the combination of a genus name and a second term, a species name.

Figure 2. Fish Fossil. Aechmodus tetragonolepis (YORYM: 2005.2359.1) (@York Museums Trust – Yorkshire Museum).

Most binomial names are Latin terms. However, some binomial names are Greek, and some are derived from the names of their discoverers or other scientists. The use of Latin and Greek words by Linnaeus was far from a random choice. When Linnaeus was developing his classification system, most educated people were trained in Latin and Greek. No matter what country they came from, people could communicate with one another using these languages.

Latin and Greek terminology is also useful as it tends to be very descriptive of the species in question. For example, consider the fish fossil in our collection currently on display at the Mary Anning Rocks exhibition. Its species name is ‘tetragonolepis’ (Fig. 2) from the Greek words tetragono ‘square’ and lepis ‘fish scales’, literally translating to the fish with the square-shaped scales. The benefits of Greek and Latin terminology become evident when considering the geographical distribution of tetragonolepis. The fossil was commonly found in Germany, Belgium, Italy, France, and the UK. Having a common language among all of these countries made the communication between scientists working there much easier.

Figure 3. Ammonite (YORYM: 2005.1895.4) (@York Museums Trust – Yorkshire Museum).

In addition to the practical advantages of using Latin and Greek words, inspiration was also drawn from ancient Greece. Once again, this situation was probably tied to the classical education that people belonging to the upper classes used to receive during the 17th and 18th centuries. Linnaeus himself studied Greek literature and mythology, as ancient Greece was the basis of education in many European countries of his time.

Two of the most well-known examples of fossils could also serve as examples of this fascination with ancient Greece. Ammonites (Fig. 3) were named after the Egyptian god Amun who is usually depicted as having spiral ram horns. While Amun was a god first mentioned in Old Egyptian texts, the language of the Old Kingdom (c.2600 – 2000 BC), he was introduced as Ammon in Europe through the Greeks. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in late 332 BC, he was regarded as a liberator, given that he did so without a war. He was therefore pronounced son of Ammon by the oracle at Siwa. Amun was identified as a form of the Greek god Zeus and Alexander often referred to Zeus-Ammon as his true father.

Figure 4. Fossilised parts of belemnite with soft tissue (YORYM: 1994.1799.65) (@York Museums Trust – Yorkshire Museum).

However, ammonites are not the only well-known fossil associated with ancient Greece as another great example of this is belemnites (Fig. 4; Fig. 5). Owing to their shape, belemnites are named after the ancient Greek word belemnon which translates to ‘dart’ or ‘arrow’. It was widely believed that belemnites were flung down as darts from heaven during thunderstorms in the same way that Zeus was throwing his lightning bolts. Moreover, their fossilised remains usually consisting of the end part of their hard internal skeleton is called a rostrum after the Latin name of the battering rams found at the front of ancient Roman and Greek ships in Antiquity. What we therefore see in the case of belemnites is the multi-layered influences of both Latin and Greek words affecting a range of notions associated with the species, from its name to parts of its body.

Figure 5. A belemnite rostrum (YORYM: 2017.222.44) (@York Museums Trust – Yorkshire Museum).

Today the Linnaean system is still the only working classification system that enjoys universal scientific acceptance. Despite the fact that there have been several modern alterations to Linnaeus’ original system, the basis of its taxonomy enabled biologists to group related species into genealogical trees and track the evolutionary lineage of modern organisms from common ancestors. A product of its time, the Linnaean system, with its Latin and Greek influences has proved to be an invaluable tool to biologists for centuries in helping them to better understand the world around us.

For many more interesting facts and specimens visit our exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum!

This blog was researched and written by Dr Christos Giamakis, White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities Postdoctoral Engagement Fellow.