Does it Matter?

When I first got into astronomy, I was frustrated by the vast number of strange terms and names I encountered. How are they pronounced I wondered? I wasn’t very old at the time, just into my teens or perhaps even pre-teens, it was a long time ago.

Over the years I have heard many speakers uttering numerous astronomical terms and names differently from one speaker to the next. Latin seems to presents the first problem. In my younger days I quite often had to get to grips with ecclesiastical Latin, which I’m told resembled the ancient Roman pronunciation, with things like V being pronounced like W.

Confusingly, most Latin names and terms used by the scientific fraternity today is a mish/mash form of Latin which, apparently was similar, but not precisely to that used on the continent during the late Medieval times where the C, G and V’s where spoken as in English and the notorious OE and AE are sounded like the Latin E. I have read that this form of Latin would have sounded quite natural to the likes of Copernicus and Kepler, although I’m not so sure about Galileo who anyone who has read his writings will know, used a very flowery form of Latin.

But try pronouncing, for instance, some of the names that you see on a chart of the Moon, and you soon find just how difficult it is. (Why can’t we just use English, at least in the English speaking countries?) It is much easier to say: the Sea of Rains or the Sea of Clouds. Instead of MAH-reh Imbrum or MAH-reh NOO-bee-um or Humbolt’s Sea, instead of the mouthful, MAH-reh Hum-bolt-ee-AHN-um. What about the Ocean of Storms? so much easier to say than Oh-she a-nus Pro-sell-AH-rum, and I have lost count of the number of speakers I have heard refer to Si-nus I-rid-un instead of SEE-nus EAR-id-um


Take a Look at the constellation names; again, this mish/mash of Latin is used in most cases. But there are a lot of traps here to catch out the speaker, names like Andromeda or Cancer are easy enough, but thing begin to get tricky with Cepheus – SEE-fee-us, Eridanus– Er-rid-an-us or Ophiuchus – Off-ee-OO-kus and then there’s the little double dots over the second o in Boötes making it Bo-OH-teez.

But try putting star designations in front of the constellation name and you run into problems. For instance:- Cassiopeia – Kass-ee-oh-PEE-ya, put flamsteed’s number 18 in front of it and you have to say Kass-ee-oh-PEE-yee, Or Gemini – JEM-in-eye, again stick Flamsteed’s 66 in front of it and you have JEM-in-O-rum. And why do we have to have a NISS for instance after LEO as in Alpha LE-o-niss.

Which brings me nicely to star names.

Astronomers in general do not have to learn Latin, but one alphabet that all should learn is the Greek. Because, If you are unsure of the Greek alphabet you will forever struggle every time you look at a star map, not only with the letter names, such as, Alpha, Beta, Gamma but also the funny skwiggiley little symbol thingies (αβγδ) that indicate them, or try to understand scientific formulae or equations, where for instance, the a Greek letter like Lamda = the wavelength of light, or Omega = the argument of periastron in a planetary orbit.

But this palls into insignificance when you look at the so called Proper Names of stars, many of which are just un-pronounceable. Yes, names like Sirius, Mira or Deneb are easy, but what about VEE-ga or is it VAY-ga, or Vin-DEE-mee-A-tricks or again is it Vin-DEM-ee-a-tricks. (ε Virginis) and try pronouncing Zubenelgenubi (α Librea)


What about names of people, does it matter if we call the Danish astronomer TY-CHO or TEE-KO, even with his surname we have a problem, is it BRA-ur or BRA- hay.

BUT, DOES IT MATTER? Apart from being polite to the person referred to.

My own thoughts are, NO, it does not matter, providing it is clear from the context of the conversation what is meant, or who is meant. Who cares if we mis-pronounce a name or term? You may have your own thoughts on this, but astronomical science is complicated enough without having to worry about how something is pronounced. I am sure that many people would love to give their all in a conversation, or even describing their latest observations to others at a Society meeting, but embarrassment at pronouncing something wrong should really not stop them from doing so. I’m sure there are things that I got wrong, or you disagree with above.


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