Within my circle of friends I was once considered the authority to consult on questions about dinosaur name pronunciation. I’ve consumed every piece of dinosaur-related media that’s crossed my path in the past thirty-five years, so if I were to say that "Parasaurolophus" is pronounced “para-SAWR-ollo-fuss” then one could assume that some justification would be forthcoming. But I must confess, dear reader: I’ve got nothing behind the curtain there.
I had to acknowledge this back in 2014 during the cross-country move to my current home. Stopping at a dinosaur museum in South Dakota, I got into a conversation with a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who [ruined my life as he] casually pronounced the long-crested hadrosaur’s name as “para-SORROW-low-fuss.” Ever since then, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I have no basis for preferring one pronunciation over another—and not only for Parasaurolophus, but also for the vast majority of fossil genus names that I know.
I’d bet that most (if not all) readers of this blog have a similar collection of scientific names stored in their passive vocabularies. These are the taxon names we read in publications, but never speak aloud—because, really, how often does the name “Ekgmowechashala” come up in conversation? We may have idiolectic pronunciations of these names, but justifications for those pronunciations are likely to be found wanting.
Bear with me, then, as I try my hand at some philosophy of linguistics. I’m going to consider two issues: first, whether or not there is an objectively correct way to pronounce a fossil genus name; second--presuming that there is a correct pronunciation--how we might know what it is. While I think there’s actually a fairly significant problem here, it’s one that luckily can be fixed with relative ease.
Is there even a single correct way to pronounce a taxon name? Perhaps the reason that I haven't been able to find an objective basis for preferring one pronunciation to the other is that there are none to be found. I say "po-TAY-toe" and you say "po-TAH-toe" and let's call the whole thing off before someone loses four years of sleep worrying about who's right.
To say that there isn't a single correct way to pronounce a word recalls the theory known as linguistic descriptivism. Descriptivists believe that linguistic communities determine linguistic standards. In other words, the "proper" way to pronounce a word is just however the people who use that word tend to pronounce it. Given that linguistic standards seem to have evolved over time by a process that resembles natural selection, linguists tend to be descriptivists: just like there isn't any intelligent designer out there dictating that human hands are for punching, there also isn't a cosmic pronunciation key.
By this theory, a word has a proper pronunciation when some critical mass of speech acts within a community establish a collective standard. Among the hundreds of named dinosaur genera only a handful are ever spoken with any frequency, so the vast majority of dinosaur taxon names wouldn't have any proper pronunciation. I would imagine that other fossil genera, most of which are less commonly known by far than any dinosaur, would fare even worse.
There are a couple of reasons to doubt that descriptivism is the best way to go here. One recalls an argument from philosopher of language Eric Fudge. Scientific taxon names are not unique to any particular language. If any standard pronunciation for a taxon name could be established, it would have to be through the speech acts of individuals in an international community that includes speakers with many and varied regional accents and linguistic backgrounds. That seems improbable, to say the least. But it does happen just the same: "Tyrannosaurus," for example, seems to have a standard pronunciation, or at least a range of incorrect ones ("tier-RAIN-os-or-us" is right out, for example). In purely probabilistic terms, then, it's unlikely that descriptivism accounts for the pronunciation of fossil genus names.
The other argument against descriptivism in this case is a lot simpler. While there isn't any cosmic pronunciation key that includes a standard pronunciation of names like "Parasaurolophus," there is a single authority who should be able to resolve disputes about pronunciation. That name was coined by a particular scientist who likely had a particular pronunciation in mind. Regardless of how a critical mass of speakers do pronounce a taxon name, it's reasonable to think that the namer ought to be granted some authority over how the name should be pronounced. Why not just ask?
Asking the name-giver
When I was younger, my favorite Beatles song was "Rocky Raccoon." Mostly I liked the concept of anthropomorphized animals (and couldn't wrap my naive prepubescent head around the idea that humans could have surnames like "Raccoon"), but I also delighted in lyrics that seemed nonsensical to me at the time. To wit:
Her name was Magill / And she called herself "Lil" / But everyone knew her as "Nancy"
In my mind, the lyric was about a woman who spelled her name "Magill," but everyone who read the name pronounced it "Nancy." Oh, how that made me laugh! I was an easy audience as a kid.
I bring this up here because by some philosophical accounts of name semantics it might not be nonsensical to have a name whose proper pronunciation seems utterly disconnected from its proper spelling. When we turn to a name-giver as the judge of disputes over pronunciation, we imply that the name-giver has a privileged authority over that issue. This recalls causal-historical theories of naming (such as the one popularized by Saul Kripke, which I've written about elsewhere), whereby the giver of a name has the privileged authority to determine the name's extension. While these theories don't necessarily address pronunciation per se, the reasoning by which a name-giver has authority in determining extension (i.e., disputes get resolved by examining the name's history) could--and maybe should--apply to authority in determining pronunciation. If I have the special authority to deem that my (hypothetical) daughter's name shall now and forever be "Magill," then it shouldn't be too much of a leap to give me similar authority to deem that in her case the name shall be pronounced "NANN-see." (I'd like to assure my partner that this example is hypothetical.)
By this logic the sole authority in pronunciation of the name "Parasaurolophus" would be William Parks, the paleontologist who coined the name in 1922. As the name-giver, he would determine the name's pronunciation. While that might resolve the dispute in principle, there are two reasons it wouldn't work in practice. First: the genus description doesn't include a pronunciation key. Second: Parks has been dead for eighty-two years and so is generally unresponsive to inquiries. The name may have a proper pronunciation, but we may be utterly incapable of knowing what it is.
Of course, this isn't necessarily a problem. Again: we have some reasonable insight into the proper pronunciation of the name "Tyrannosaurus" even though Henry Fairfield Osborn, who coined the name, has been dead for eighty-three years. By causal-historical standards, we can be reasonably sure about the pronunciation because current pronunciation (likely) has its origin in Osborn's own speech acts. Similarly, the name-giver for some taxon might write out a pronunciation key in a book that I read several years later, thus giving me insight into the proper pronunciation. All that a causal-historical account would require for proper pronunciation is that my speech act would be somehow influenced by the name-giver's intended pronunciation.
Unfortunately, examples like those are relatively uncommon. For every name like "Tyrannosaurus," whose pronunciation has been propagated by repeated imitation of the name-giver's original speech acts, there are dozens more names like "Agathaumas": coined, written without a pronunciation key, and rarely (if ever) spoken aloud except in best-guess attempts. What good is a theory that gives us proper pronunciations for names, but keeps most of those proper pronunciations opaque?
If we can't consult the name-givers, then maybe our best hope is to consider the the names themselves.
The origin of species (names)
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology requires that all new taxon names be accompanied by a description of the new name's etymology. Per the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, names may be rejected if their etymology is inappropriate or insufficiently justified. A name's linguistic origin therefore makes a difference in the application of that name to a taxon.
But is etymology relevant to the name's pronunciation? Hopefully not. Historically, most taxon names were derived from words in dead or significantly altered languages. "Parasaurolophus" is derived from three roots in Ancient Greek: "para" (meaning "near" or "close"), "sauros" (meaning "lizard" or "reptile") and "lophos" (meaning "crest"). (Actually, "Parasaurolophus" only has two roots: the Ancient Greek word "para" and the genus name "Saurolophus." This is admittedly hair-splitting and it's not like philosophers are known for that sort of thing.) If the roots look easy enough to pronounce, bear in mind that those are latinized transcriptions of the words πᾰρᾰ́, σαῦρος, and λόφος, none of which beg to roll off the modern tongue.
It's been a very long time since Ancient Greek was last spoken as a common language, and so the best that modern speakers can do is try to approximate the language's original speech acts. Since modern pronunciation has been altered by a variety of historical factors--immigration, emigration, cultural transmission, etc.--there are several candidate systems for the language that would serve as the pronunciation standard for the taxon name in question. The situation is similar for Latin: terms in Prescriptivist or Classical Latin (which consists of the "correct" pronunciation of words and used primarily by scholars and orators) have their pronunciations reconstructed from derived Romance languages (primarily Italian), and the pronunciation of Vulgar Latin (used by the average Roman) has been lost entirely. Since most taxon names have roots in Ancient Greek or Latin, an etymological standard of pronunciation wouldn't be any less opaque than a causal-historical standard.
More recently, paleontologists have made more of an effort to give fossil taxa names that reflect local languages. The aforementioned primate taxon "Ekgmowechashala," for example, has its name's roots in Sioux terminology for "little cat man." Without a pronunciation key a majority of speakers might have to guess at proper pronunciation in these cases, but that wouldn't count against the possibility that linguistic standards of the native language could determine pronunciation. In fact, these are cases wherein etymological data could be even more useful than a name-giver's pronunciation key. Since the name-giver may not be a native speaker of the root language, deference to speech acts in the root language would be appropriate.
Nevertheless, we have some good reasons to doubt that etymology determines pronunciation. First of all, consider again "Tyrannosaurus," derived from the Ancient Greek roots τύραννος ("turannos") and σαῦρος ("sauros"). We may not know how the roots were pronounced, but (as I've said before) we can reasonably certain how to pronounce the taxon name. Second, even in those cases wherein etymology seems to be authoritative--"Ekgmowechashala," for example--deference to the root language is mediated by the name-giver's intent. The best cases for an etymological account therefore remain consistent with the causal-historical account.
Maybe taxon names don't have correct pronunciations, but the best relativist account does a poor job explaining how scientific names can be standardized between linguistic communities. Maybe taxon names do have correct pronunciations, but of the price to pay for saying so is skepticism about what the correct pronunciation might be--regardless of which of the two relevant accounts we choose.
Of the account that we've considered, the causal-historical one strikes me as the strongest. It explains the standardization of taxon name pronunciation better than linguistic descriptivism does and would account for a wider range of pronunciations than the etymological account. Skepticism may be the price we pay, but that's currency that scientists should be comfortable carrying anyway.
The price can also be avoided. Just as JVP requires name-givers to explain a name's etymology, so too can scientific journals require that pronunciation keys be given with new taxon names. Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet would help scientists to avoid resorting to the Eurocentric phonetic transcriptions that I've given above, thus improving the standardization and efficiency of scientific terminology.
It's a small change that could yield significant returns. Not least of all, I'd be able to rest easier: not only would I have a good idea how Parasaurolophus sounded, I'd also finally know how "Parasaurolophus" sounds. (That's a little use/mention joke for all the philosophers of language who have probably felt neglected until now.)