Marking up the scientific names of living things

As any web manager worth their salt knows, it’s <span lang=”fr”>trés important</span> that changes in language be marked up with HTML’s “lang” attribute, using an IETF language tag (such as “fr” for French, as shown above). This allows software like text readers for blind people to pronounce them correctly (instead of sounding like an outtake from ‘Allo ‘Allo!) and means that translation software can handle them appropriately.

But what happens when a page like this one includes the scientific (or taxonomic) name of a living thing, such as Circus cyaneus (the Hen Harrier)? It’s not English, and should not be translated, into, say, German, as Zirkus cyaneus.

It’s not really Latin, either, though some people mistakenly refer to scientific names as “Latin names”. Many of them are neologisms — new words, with no real Latin content, but based on Latinised Greek (for example Brachypelma albopilosum), people’s names (Ardeola grayii, in honour of John Edward Gray, a biologist), place names (Nepenthes sumatrana, from Sumatra), culture (Ba humbugi, a quote from Charles Dickens‘ ‘A Christmas Carol‘) or even humour (Phthiria relativitae, a play on “The Theory of Relativity”).

Back in 2003, on the IETF mailing list whcih discusses such langauge codes, I proposed that there should be a specific language code, or sub-code, so that scientific names such as these could be marked up and recognised by software. There wasn’t much interest (possibly because I made the proposal as an amateur, rather than a professional or academic taxonomist), and distractions in my work and domestic life meant that I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to pursue the matter.

However, the need for such a code has now been recognised by Gregor Hagedorn, of the Julius Kuehn Institute, Germany‘s Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, in Berlin, who has rekindled my proposal.

With the support of Gregor and other taxonomists, via the Taxacom mailing list, I’m hopeful we can at last make a case that such a code is needed.

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