The correct gender of poecile and the scientific name of the Willow Tit

Published on 02 November 2011 in Letters

Recently, there has been a debate in some areas – notably David & Gosselin (2008), but also on certain internet forums – about the scientific name of the Willow Tit Poecile montana – and whether the masculine form of the species name, montanus, should be used instead of the feminine montana. A summary version of this letter was published in the November 2011 issue of BB.

The Greek word poikile and the Latin word poecile

The Greek word poikile is the feminine nominative singular of a three-termination adjective of which the primary meaning is ‘many-coloured’. This adjective was used to describe many things, including birds. The same word passed into Latin as a feminine noun, poecile (Latinized but with a transliterated Greek ending – a not uncommon practice). Although its primary meaning in Latin is ‘colonnade or gallery’, this is because one use of the adjective had been to describe the famous Stoa Poikile (or painted colonnade) in Athens; the adjective in effect became a shorthand name of the place. Accordingly, any adjective used in agreement with poecile must also be feminine, hence Poecile montana (not montanus, which is masculine).

Treatment under the ICZN code

Scientific names are composed of two or three parts (denoting genus, species and subspecies, unless the species is monotypic). There are rules for their use established by the code of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. It is clear from careful reading of the code that it takes grammatical agreements very seriously, and that there is no expectation that gender changes should be made unnecessarily. It is also clear that no conflict is intended between the provisions of the code and Greek or Latin grammar. It should be remembered that the code is a guide, and that the examples do not illustrate every case. The relevant articles in this case are as follows.

11.8. Genus-group names. A genus-group name (see also Article 10.3) must be a word of two or more letters and must be, or be treated as, a noun in the nominative singular.

11.8.1. A genus-group name proposed in Latin text but written otherwise than in the nominative singular because of the requirements of Latin grammar is available, provided that it meets the other requirements of availability, but it is to be corrected to the nominative singular.

Comment There is absolutely no problem with poecile under the above articles.

30.1. Gender of names formed from Latin or Greek words. Subject to the exceptions specified in (Article 30.1.4).

30.1.1. A genus-group name that is or ends in a Latin word takes the gender given for that word in standard Latin dictionaries; if it is a compound word formed from two or more components, the gender is given by the final component (in the case of a noun, the gender of that noun; in the case of any other component, such as a Latin suffix, the gender appropriate to that component);

Examples: Felis and Tuba, feminine; Salmo, Passer, Ursus and Turdus, masculine; Argonauta, masculine from the final noun nauta (a sailor), masculine; Lithodomus, feminine from the final noun domus (a home), feminine; Anser (a goose), masculine, as are names ending in it; Anseranas, feminine (a compound name of two nouns: Anser, masculine, but the final noun anas (a duck) is feminine); Anserina (Anser with the suffix -ina), feminine; Oculina, feminine (from the Latin masculine noun oculus and the feminine suffix -ina); Orca (from orca, a large-bellied pot), feminine; names formed from it by the addition of suffixes: Orcaella, feminine, and Orcinus, masculine.

Comment The word poecile in Latin is feminine for reasons explained above; the ending -e on Latin (but not Greek or borrowed-from-Greek) nouns is found in the neuter gender.

30.1.2. A genus-group name that is or ends in a Greek word transliterated into Latin without other changes takes the gender given for that word in standard Greek dictionaries;

Examples. Greek nouns transliterated without change into Latin as the whole or part of a name: Ichthyornis, ending in –ornis (ornis), is masculine; Lepas (lepas) is feminine; Diadema (diadema) is neuter. Names ending in –caris (caris), –gaster (gaster), –lepis (lepis), or –opsis (opsis) are feminine; names ending in –ceras (keras), –nema (nema), –soma (soma), –stigma (stigma), or –stoma (stoma) are neuter.

Comment The examples here include both words which have been transliterated and words which have been Latinised, but the intention is clear: the Greek ending determines the gender.

30.1.3. A genus-group name that is a Greek word latinized with change of ending, or with a Latin or latinized suffix, takes the gender normally appropriate to the changed ending or the Latin suffix.

Examples: Names with the Latin gender ending –us, latinized from the Greek endings -os (masculine or feminine), -e (feminine), -a (neuter) or -on (neuter), are masculine: e.g. –cephalus (kephale), –cheilus and –chilus (cheilos), –crinus (krinon), –echinus (echinos), –gnathus (gnathos), –rhamphus (rhamphos), –rhynchus (rhynchos), –somus (soma), –stethus (stethos), and –stomus (stoma). Names ending in the Latin gender ending –a, latinized from the Greek ending -on are feminine, e.g. –metopa (metopon). Names derived from the Greek -keras (neuter) may have the ending –cerus (masculine) or -cera (feminine), although simple transliteration of the Greek ending as –ceras retains the neuter gender; Phorella (feminine) is derived from the Greek word phor (a robber, masculine) and the Latin diminutive suffix –ella (feminine); Scatella, feminine, is derived from skatos (neuter) and the Latin suffix –ella (feminine); Doridunculus (masculine) from Doris, Greek, the name of a sea godess (feminine), and –unculus a Latin suffix (masculine).

Comment This seems the closest equivalent in the code to poecile; a Greek word Latinised but with a transliterated ending retains the gender of the original ending. This statement was also made explicitly by Grensted & Bradley 1958, who in their discussion of the formation of new names comment: ‘there are many instances in which Greek words have been taken over into Latin unchanged e.g. Cyrene, Pelion.’ By ‘unchanged’ they mean that the ending has been unchanged.

30.1.4. The following exceptions apply:

30.1.4.1. If the author states when establishing the name that it is not formed from, or is not treated as, a Latin or Greek word (Article 26), the gender is determined as though the name is an arbitrary combination of letters (Article 30.2.2).

30.1.4.2. A genus-group name that is or ends in a word of common or variable gender (masculine or feminine) is to be treated as masculine unless its author, when establishing the name, stated that it is feminine or treated it as feminine in combination with an adjectival species-group name (Art. 31.2).

Examples: Bos is of common gender (meaning ox or cow); it and compound names ending in it (such as Ovibos), are treated as masculine. Compound Latin nouns ending in –cola (masculine or common gender in Latin): Agricola (’tiller of fields’, masculine in Latin) is masculine, Sylvicola (‘inhabitant of woods’) and Monticola (‘highlander’) are treated as masculine. Petricola (‘dweller among rocks’, common gender in Latin) is feminine because it was originally treated as feminine by being combined with the specific names costata, striata and sulcata.

Comment When the code refers to a word of common or variable gender, it means nouns which are c. (common, i.e. the same ending is found in words which may be masculine or feminine). It is not referring to three-termination adjectives, which in Greek and Latin are always used in a particular gender (as is clear in the code from the statement that combination with an adjectival name determines gender). (Two-termination adjectives present difficulties similar to those of nouns which are common, but this difficulty does not apply in the case of poecile.)

30.1.4.3. A compound genus-group name ending in -ops is to be treated as masculine, regardless of its derivation or of its treatment by its author.

30.1.4.4. A compound genus-group name ending in the suffix –ites, –oides, –ides, –odes, or –istes is to be treated as masculine unless its author, when establishing the name, stated that it had another gender or treated it as such by combining it with an adjectival species-group name in another gender form.

Examples: Hoplitoides and Harpides are masculine, but Aleptinoides (meaning ‘like Aleptina‘) is treated as feminine because that was the gender adopted by its original authors.

30.1.4.5. A genus-group name that is or ends in a Latin word of which the ending has been changed takes the gender appropriate to the new ending; if the ending is such as not to indicate a particular gender, the name is to be treated as masculine.

Example: Dendrocygna is feminine, although the second word in the combination is formed from cygnus (a swan), masculine.

Critique of David & Gosselin (2008)

David & Gosselin (2008) published a discussion of the gender of poecile which is flawed for several reasons. As they themselves acknowledged, most early European authors (in an era when classical languages were relatively widely studied) treated poecile as feminine. It is ironic that, at a time when classical languages are much less widely studied, David & Gosselin have taken it upon themselves to make a misinformed judgement about gender.

Much of their discussion of poecile is incomplete or inaccurate, and the final part (beginning ‘It can only be viewed as a Latinized Greek word…’) is clearly incorrect. For reasons explained above, the transliterated feminine Greek ending -e is acceptable under the code. The same word passed into Latin as a feminine noun. Their statement that the ending -e is not indicative of a particular gender in Latin is also wrong (in the nominative singular it normally indicates the neuter gender; the only exceptions are nouns with endings transliterated from Greek, as here).

As for their discussion of Leptopoecile, instead of concentrating on what Severtsov actually called the bird (again using poecile as above) they have speculated that it might be formed from poikilis (despite the fact that Severtsov did not call the bird Leptopoecilis, and despite the fact that poikilis is a very rare Greek word used only by Aristophanes).

References

David, N., & Gosselin, M. 2008. Grammatical gender of Poecile and Leptopoecile. Dutch Birding 30: 19.

Grensted, L. W., & Bradley, J. C. 1958. Transliteration and Latinization of Greek words. Bull. Zool. Nomencl. 15: 1111-1113.

ICZN 1999. International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. 4th edn. London.

Kaup, J. 1829. Skizzirte Entwicklungs-Geschichte und Naturliches System der Europaischen Thierwelt. Darmstadt.

Lewis, C. T., & Short, C. 1879. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford.

Liddell, H. G., & Scott, R. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th edn. Oxford.

Sangster, G., Collinson, J. M., Knox, A. G., Parkin, D. T., & Svensson, L. 2007. Taxonomic recommendations for British birds: fourth report. Ibis 149: 853-857.

Andrew H. J. Harrop, 30 Dean Street, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6AF; e-mail andrew.harrop@virgin.net