Pronunciation and spelling of scientific names

An article by Kalliope K. Bechraki and Andreas I. Iliopoulos

There is a lot of debate about the correct pronunciation and spelling of the scientific names of fishes, due to their origins which are mainly the ancient Greek language and Latin.

Many of these names, after passing from language to language, have either lost their correct spelling (according to the grammar of the language from which they are coming from), or are very difficult for people, except (probably) the Greeks, to be pronounced accurately. Another drawback is the “latinization” of Greek words or “Anglicization” of both Greek and Latin ones.

So we shall try to give you some ways to pronounce, and thus understand, the meaning of scientific names of fishes, trying to make them not “look like Greek” to you.

Some may say that the ancient Greek pronunciation is not the same as the neo-Greek way of pronouncing the very same letters, but as a Greek myself, I assure you of the opposite.

The only difference is that our ancestors used to speak as if they recited poems or songs, as there were no punctuation marks and the words were written without a separation.

We do know that the exact way that our ancestors used to pronounce is difficult to be said safely and we cannot be quite sure about it, as there is not any audile information. We conjecture that it must be (at least) very close to what grammar suggests, due to our insistent keeping of a great deal of forms that came from the ancient Greeks (like Homer for instance) to the Hellenistic era and from the Hellenistic era, to the Byzantines and then to the modern Greeks of the 17th century and so on.

Our ancestors recognized two different values in vowels and diphthongs, the short vowels and/or diphthongs and the long ones. A long vowel or diphthong was pronounced by expanding its pronunciation time and short ones pronounced the opposite.

This “rule” also clarifies the way to stress particular words, which is essential for someone to understand where a word should be stressed and why.


We cannot stress a syllable of a word before the antepenult (the third syllable of a word counting from the end).

When we know that when the penult (the next to the last syllable of a word) is a long one, it must be stressed.

When we know that the penult is a short one, we must put the stress on the antepenult.

These are the very basic rules, that are quite the same as in Latin, but in Latin we never stress the last syllable, while we do in Greek.

Also, vowels and diphthongs in Latin can be either long or short ones, depending on their position in a word.

The audile values of letters have not changed.

I asked the help of my other half (Kalliope Bechraki), who is a Greek and Latin literature master, and teaches both these languages to students who intend to continue their studies on literature at University courses.

Her help, as an expert in these old languages, was invaluable.

Latin looks old and it is characterized as a “dead” language, and the same characterization goes for ancient Greek, too.
The difference is that Latin is used only by the catholic priests today, but, on the other hand, a lot of the ancient Greek words are used today, exactly as they were used by our ancestors and an even greater number of them are used by other foreigner people – though with a different pronunciation due to writing or spelling - as common daily words.

Of course, we must not ignore the many Latin phrases we all use instead of using a periphrastic way to say the same thing in our own languages.

Phrases like per se, in vitro, in vivo, ad hoc, de facto etc, as well as the half of the biological literature, are very common for many people all around the globe.

So Latin is not so “dead” of a language as it is considered. The only advantage for the Greek language, compared to Latin, is that Greek is still spoken (at least quite similarly as our ancestors used to speak it) today by more than ten million of people in Greece, while Latin is not spoken by any national population at all.

The English word trauma, which is not English at all but an authentic Greek word, is a great example. It means exactly the same thing in Greek and the Greek word is pronounced as TRA - VMA, which is very close in pronunciation to the English vocalization.

May be we cannot pronounce it correctly right now, but I hope at the end of this article we will.

Finally, I entered this endeavor because I find scientific names very important for identification, for understanding techniques or the look of a specific species and because sometimes scientific names describe fishes very accurately. On top of that, you may open a Chinese, Korean, Arabic or Japanese  book on fish keeping but although you will not understand a word in the text you will still enjoy the photos because under them you will see the Melanochromis auratus and you will recognize the fish. Scientific terms are universal and, as such, indispensable

A great help will be gained from the article: Greek Names in Fish Taxonomy, by Dr. George J. Reclos and Dr. Michael K. Oliver, about the nomenclature of cichlids of lake Malawi (http://malawicichlidhomepage.com/aquainfo/fish_names01.html) and from the also important article, Scientific names: How do they work, by Francesco Zezza (http://malawicichlidhomepage.com/aquainfo/scientific_names.html).

The basics

The pronunciation of the letters (vowels or consonants) in Latin is the pronunciation of the simple sound of every specific letter. If you see any letter you must pronounce it the same way as if you were about to pronounce the sound of the letter.

1) Vowels

A, E, I, O and U

A is pronounced as the A’s in the word America and not as if the letter was in the words same or parents, for instance. The Greek letter is Alpha (A, α).

E is pronounced as E’s in the word essential and not as if we read the word report. The Greek letter is Epsilon (E, ε).

I is pronounced as I in the word pity and not as if we want to say Irish. The Greek name is Iota (I, ι).

I when occurring in the beginning of a word followed by vowel, it is pronounced like Y in pronoun You. The words that originate from Greek are excepted, so i is pronounced then like a single letter.

For example the word Iodotropheus must be pronounced as I o – do – tro – phe – us (I pronounced as in the word pill, drill or kill) and not Yo – do – tro – phe – us, because it comes from the Greek word Iodes (=violet).

On the other hand, the word Iotichthys must be pronounced exactly as described above: Yo – tich – this, stressed on the last syllable, because the Greek word for fish is ichthys and it is stressed on the last syllable.

Vowel + I + vowel also pronounced as Y. So the name Oreias must be pronounced O – reyas, stressed on the penult.

O is pronounced as it is pronounced in the word port and not as if we want to say love, some, or mother. The Greek letter is Omicron, which means O but micron (= small. Which also means not a long vowel but a short one).

U is pronounced as the double o’s in word poor and not as in words. University, cute or understand. The corresponding Greek letter is the diphthong Omicron Ypsilon (OΥ, ου). Ypsilon or y Grecum (as was called from Romans) means that this y is a high pitched i, as the word Y- psilon (psilon = high pitched). For example Pseudotropheus must be pronounced as Pse – u – do – tro – phe – us.

U + vowel pronounced always as v in the words ventilator, vortex and variation. duodecimspinosus must be pronounced as dvo – de – cim – spi – no – sus stressed on the antepenult.

spilauchen must be pronounced spi – la – vhen, stressed on the last syllable, because the word auchen is the Greek word for cervix or neck is stressed on the last syllable.

Uaru is an exception as it is the local name of the species and it must be pronounced as U – a – roo.

Vowel + U pronounced also as v. So the word pauciperflorata must be pronounced as pav – ki – per – flo – ra – ta.

Vowel + U + vowel is pronounced as v too. So the name Euanemus must be pronounced as Ev – a – ne – mus, stressed on the antepenult.

Y is always pronounced as we pronounce i in the words pick, lick and spit.

There is another vowel in Latin that in English is not a vowel at all. I’m talking about the letter J, j, which is pronounced as Y in the pronoun You, if found on the beginning of a word and it is followed be a vowel.

J, although we know it as a consonant letter, Romans used it as i too. They called it Iot (it is pronounced as we do with the English word yacht).

J, follows the same rules with i when found on the beginning of a word and then a vowel is following (J + vowel), or while in the middle of two vowels (vowel + j + vowel) in a word. So we must pronounce jurupari as You – roo – pa – ri.

The letter J denotes a missing rough breathing pneuma or a missing subfix marking.

The rough breathing pneuma and the subfix marking were making, then, a letter - and thus a syllable -  “longer” than it should be otherwise, the same as if we added an iota besides the specified letters with these two markings.

2) Diphthongs

AE, AU, EU and OE

This is a bit more complicated situation, but I’ll try to make it a bit clear. With vowels, there are some combinations of letters that are more difficult to pronounce.

Ae is always pronounced as e in the word smell. Usually it declares a feminine name or when seen as a word’s ending, a noun from the first declension of the five Latin nouns’ declensions in genitive.

When found in the middle of a word, it usually denotes a Greek, but “Latinized” word, that in Greek was written with the Greek diphthong Alpha Iota (αι), a diphthong which was and is pronounced as a long e. For example I’ll give the word Melanotaenia, which must be pronounced as Me-La-No-Tee-Ni-A (remember e or ae are always pronounced as e in the word smell).

The only exception to this rule is the word aeneus and all the words that have as their first part this root (aene-), which means something colored like cooper.

This word must be pronounced as a – e – ne – us stressed on  - e - (and not on – ne -), or as a – he – ne – us. This h is pronounced in this case as h in words house, have and heritage.

I won’t say which rule this is due to because it’s complicated to understand for someone that has no idea of the Greek language’s “oddities”. And there are quite many of them.

Au is pronounced always as we pronounce – ou – in the word round.

Eu is not pronounced as in word Europe, but as two separated letters.

Oe is pronounced as a long e (not so long like two e but long) that looks like ea in the words leave and pea, or as in how we pronounce ë in German or languages similar to German. Try to pronounce Poecilia this way. Have in mind that the word is Greek and means the variety. It is pronounced as pea - ki - li - a. The I’s in the syllables ki and li are pronounced as in words fish, kiss or miss.

3) Consonants

As I mentioned above, all the consonants are pronounced as in English. R is r, P is p, D is d etc.

Romans had no K in their alphabet, so the letter C is always pronounced as K (Kate) or C on the word cat, crown and crime.

When a double c is found in a word we must pronounce it as x, if the word has a Greek origin. For example the word occidentalis must be pronounced as o – xi – den – ta – lis, because the first word that it has origins in is a Greek one. Occi sounds the same in Greek (from oxis = sharp).

Some taxonomists write the Greek originated words with K instead of C, as in word Mikrogeophagus, which, since recently, was written (incorrectly, under my opinion) as Microgeophagus, as both words (Mikro and geophagus) are Greek ones and Mikron (and not micron) means small and geophagus means earth eater.

The letter H, h denotes a Greek originated word with a “spiritus asper”, which means a letter that it is not pronounced but is in the word to define a Greek word that on its first vowel was once a rough breathing pneuma (stressed short).

The consonant complexes ch, th, ph and ps denotes that these four sounds are coming from the Greek language and the letters Χ,χ (Chi) – Θ,θ (theta)- Φφ (Fi) and Ψ,ψ (Psi).

Ch is always pronounced as h in words home, Hawaii or hand.

So the name Chamsochromis is pronounced Ham – pso – hro – mis, and is stressed  on the last syllable as – chromis is an absolutely Greek word that it is stressed on the last syllable, too.

Wherever we see the word - chromis as an ending to a particular name, we must take care to stress this word at the last syllable - mis.

Th is pronounced as th in words thorn, thunder or theater. So the word Telmatherina must be pronounced as Tel – ma – the ri – na.

Ph is always pronounced as f in words fire, front or father.

So the word Aphanius must be pronounced as A – fa – ni- us.

Ps is always pronounced as the sound that is elaborated from the combination of the two single letters p and s, and not as we pronounce in English the word Psychology, by ignoring (“vocally” speaking) the letter p.

S, is pronounced as the English s, except when found between two vowels, so it is always pronounced as z, like in words Zoo, Zorro and bizarre.

So the word Belonesox is pronounced Be – lo – ne – zox.

But when double s is between two vowels it is pronounced as plain s in English (star, severe and sound).

Z is pronounced as j (as in words job, Jane or journey), so the name of the species Belonesox belizanus must be pronounced as Be – lo – ne – zox be – li – ja – nus.

There are two ligatures that need a little attention paid to them.

Qu + vowel is pronounced as kv. So the word Panaque must be pronounced as Pa – na – kve, stressed on – na -.

Gu + vowel is pronounced as gv. So the name Anguilla anguilla (the common European eel) must be pronounced as An – gvi – la an – gvi – la, stressed on the antepenult.


R is pronounced as r in English words. Although when r occurs at the beginning of a word, it is followed by an h. The same happens when a double rr is found in the middle of a word and it is followed by a vowel.

The reason for this is that the corresponding Greek letter Ρ,ρ (Ro) used to take a rough breathing pneuma as in the same – as above described – cases.

For example, instead of writing Hemigrammus rodostomus and Osteoglossum bicirrosum we do write H. rhodostomus and O. bicirrhosum.

This h is not pronounced as clearly as it is in other words as it describes either the rough breathing pneuma and/or subfix marking.  

These are the main characteristics of pronunciation, which are based on the grammar rules both of Latin and Greek languages.

Many of the Latin or “latinized” words must be pronounced this way. I could even recommend they be written the same way that Greeks used to write them. The reason for my belief is because Romans took these words and embodied them in Latin. They would take them as sounds and they were writing them with the Latin alphabet for their ease.

As a good example of words coming from the Greek, is the word lips (= cheilos) that is written in Greek with epsilon iota (a diphthong), which is pronounced as ea in words (peat, read or heat) in Greek.

Although Romans would pronounce this diphthong as separated e and i, stressed on e, in most of the cases, there are some exceptions.

Many scientific fish names include this word, as the words Cheilotilapia, Balandiocheilus etc. In the first case, we’ll have to pronounce the word as Hea – lo – ti – la – pi - a, because we are not allowed to stress on syllables before the antepenult and because the origin of the word is Greek.

In the case of Balandiocheilus the pronunciation must be Ba – la – ndi – o – chei – lus, stressed on – o -, as the word is a “latinized” Greek word also.

Some examples

Pseudotropheus tropheops

Pse – u – do – tro fe us (stressed on the penult) tro – fe – ops (stressed on the penult). Phe pronounced as fe in words feminine or femoral.

Copadichromis chrysonotus

Co – pa – di – chro – mis (stressed on the last syllable) chy – so – no – tus (stressed on penult). Ch is pronounced as h in words home or humble.

Acanthopsis choirorhynchus

A – ka – ntho – psis (stressed on the penult) hi – ro – ry – nhus (stressed on the penult). th is pronounced as in words thought or think and ch as h in words hold or heart. oi is a Greek diphthong that sounds like i in words milk or give.

Paracyprichromis nigripinnis

Pa – ra – ky – pri – hro – mis (stressed on the last syllable) ni – gri – pi nis (stressed on the penult).

Synodontis multipunctatus

Sy – no – do – ndis is stressed on the last syllable, because it is Greek originated as the relative word CY – PRI – NO – DO – NDI – DAE (Ky – pri – no – do – ndi – de, which is also stressed on the same syllable) mu – lti – pun – kta – tus (stressed on the penult).

Some comments

Of course I understand that all these rules and directions are very difficult to be followed by all the people which the aquarium community consists of, such as the Anglophones (this word was used by dr. Michael K. Oliver to describe the English speaking population; it is also a Greek term, used for non-Greeks), who would have a great problem with this way of pronunciation.

Besides, after all these years of using these names as “Latinized” and/or “Anglicized” words, who cares about their origin and the proper way of pronouncing them according to the rules of the language that they are originated from.

Eventually the most important thing with fish keeping is to know which species is which, what does it need, how does it live in the wild and what should it be the form of its housing, what should it be fed and what is its behavior.

Nomenclature is very important too, as it gives very basic information about the exterior appearance of the animal and sometimes something more than this.

Pronunciation may be important for us Greeks, as we do assert a vast majority of words that are used from non-Greeks, either exactly as we used them during the past; and we still use them on the present time, or by some reformations that were necessary for the ease of non-Greek people who use them as well.

This is, of course, how a Greek would like things to be. However, as two key scientists in the field point out, this might be neither easy nor practical. I asked their permission to use their comments, thus the reader will get the complete picture.

We believe that the serious and reliable comments from the two well - known gentlemen are critical for this effort and we think that it is essentially important for their notices to be included as well. The two gentlemen need no special introduction. When we were on the finish line of our try we communicated with Dr. Ronald M. Coleman and Dr. Michael K. Oliver and asked them for their opinion on this issue. Both of them were kind enough to send their comments that follow:

“I have very mixed feelings about your article. On the one hand, you are brave to tackle so difficult and controversial a subject. I applaud you for trying!
But, on the other hand, I have read your article carefully, and conclude that I cannot agree with much of what you propose. I am sure you are correct about how to pronounce scientific names as if they were modern Greek names.

But, if I pronounced fish names according to all of your guidelines, every ichthyologist in North America and the rest of the natively English speaking world would simply not understand many of the names, because there is a long tradition of using different guidelines. Even those names that they did understand would sound strange and exotic. This is not the goal of pronouncing scientific names! Rather, universal and unambiguous understanding is the goal. Often, two or three different ways of pronouncing a scientific name are «acceptable» or «mainstream» in North American and the UK, and all can generally be understood. Your guidelines, though, are very different from what English-speakers know.

Again, I’m sure you and Mrs. K. K. Bechraki are perfectly correct about Greek pronunciation. If I were speaking to hobbyists or scientists in Greece (or to Greeks anywhere), I would do my best to follow your rules—because that would give me the best chance to be understood correctly. For the same reason, I would never use your rules when speaking the names to American or British Commonwealth hobbyists or scientists, because if I did, there would be almost no chance that some names would be recognizable.

One aspect of your rules that I reject is your insistence on pronouncing names that are not of Greek origin as if they were Greek. Examples you cite include «jurupari», «belizanus,» and the -tilapia part of «Cheilotilapia».

«Tilapia,» Ethelwynn Trewavas told me, is from a West African language; the «til-» is actually a clicking sound in the original language and the «-apia» part is pronounced with the «a» sounded as in «say» or «way.» Why should I force this word to be Greek?

I also don’t like trying to pronounce all the «-chromis» generic names with the accent on the «-mis.» It may be correct Greek, but is simply bizarre-sounding to English-speakers and does not promote clear communication. I could single out several additional rules that just do not «work» for Anglophones.

On a positive note, I hope you will complete and post your article, and I look forward to linking to it, as an alternative view to mine, from my (future) page of my own suggested pronunciations.”

Michael K. Oliver (

“I have read your article and Dr. Michael K. Oliver’s response and I tend to agree with him. Although the origins of many scientific names (incorrectly called Latin names) are in Greek and/or Latin, the current words are in a language all of their own.
This language is specified by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (currently in the 4th Edition, published 1999). This rather extensive guide specifies what can and what cannot be used in a name and how such names are to be formed.
It pays tribute to Greek and Latin, for example, Article 26 states «if the spelling of a scientific name, or of the final component of a compound name is the same as a Greek or Latin word, that name or that component is deemed to be a word in the relevant language unless the author sates otherwise when making the name available».
But, the code also recognizes the diverse linguistic origins of many words or parts of words used in scientific names and allows their use, including words which don’t necessarily exist in any recognized language, e.g. the names of people, places, etc.
However, and this is the important part, the code also specifies particular rules that directly say to violate the rules of the original language in favor of the rules of the code, in essence creating a new language. For example, diacritic marks, ligatures, apostrophes and hyphens must always be deleted (Article 32.5) and furthermore that incorrect spellings are to be retained and not corrected. There are tons of rules to handle all sorts of special cases and issues that might arise from this sort of a thing.
So, given that scientific names are in their own language, what is the correct way to pronounce that language?
This is where most scientists conclude that since the code does not provide any information about pronunciation, then there is no «correct» way of pronouncing these words, other than to do so in a way that clearly communicates the name and distinguishes it from other names.

The reality, like it or not, is that scientific names are pronounced according to the same rules as the English language, which is not that a letter has a particular sound (despite what school teachers might say and unlike more formally defined languages like French), but rather that they are pronounced according to the way the majority of the people say them. This doesn’t sit well with language scholars but nonetheless is how it is done. Although it irks people when they see a word derived from a language they know to be pronounced differently than it should be pronounced, it allows for the possibility of pronouncing many words from a variety of linguistic origins more or less correctly, or at least understandably”.

Ronald M. Coleman ( )

I have to thank Dr. George J. Reclos, Dr. Michael K. Oliver and Dr. Ronald M. Coleman for their valuable discussions and comments.


Grammar of the Latin language, Theocharis A. Kakrides (Edition September 1989 – ESTIA)

Latin Grammar, Achilles Tzartzanos, (Zacharopoulos 54th edition 1994)

Latin Grammar, Herikos Skasses



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