Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Maltese letter 'għ' in taxonomy

The 9th letter of the Maltese alphabet is a digraph written as and pronounced 'għajn' (aighn in English). In speech, it is a silent consonant which has the function of lengthening the succeeding vowel, therefore a word written as 'għar' (meaning 'cave') would be pronounced something like 'aar'.

Several placenames in the Maltese Islands bear the letter għ - Għarb, Bengħisa and Għargħur being a few examples. Taxonomists naming animals from such places for their type locality have to use gh instead of in the specific epithet, simply because the ICZN does not allow for any characters other than the 26 of the Latin alphabet (Article 11.2).

Through the literature cited, I was able to come across five such animals described from the Maltese Islands. Clio ghawdexensis Janssen, 2003 is a fossil pteropod named after the island of Gozo, known in Maltese as Għawdex. Trochoidea gharlapsi Beckmann, 1987 is another snail, this time a recent terrestrial species localized mainly around the area of Għar Lapsi ('Lapsi Cave') in southern Malta (juvenile specimen illustrated below, photographed in December 2009).

However, both the above-mentioned type localities are (nomenclaturally) one-offs. The place to boast most species named for it is Għar Dalam (Dalam Cave), which is an extremely important location for fossils of the dwarf elephants and hippopotami that roamed Malta during the Pleistocene. Armadillidium ghardalamensis Caruso & Hili, 1991 is a woodlouse that is endemic to this cave and another one close by (Għar Ħassan). Scolopax ghardalamensis Fischer & Stephan, 1974 is a fossil bird described from the place, though this is now known to be a junior synonym of Coturnix coturnix (Linn., 1758). Finally, Myotis ghardalamensis Storch, 1974, an early Pleistocene bat, probably ancestral to the more modern species.

The million-dollar question is, how would these names, purely hypothetically or actually, be pronounced? Would the Maltese letter retain or lose its linguistic characteristics when included in a species' Latinized name? If binomial names were commonly used, would one speak of Trochoidea 'garlapsi' [sic], or Trochoidea 'aarlapsi' [sic]?


Beckmann, K. -H. (1987). Land und Süßwassermollusken der Maltesischen Inseln. Heldia, 1 (Sonderheft): 1-38.
Caruso, D. & Hili, C. (1991). Nuovi dati sugli isopodi terrestri delle isole dell’arcipelago maltese. Animalia, 18: 115-124 .
Fischer, K. von & Stephan, B. (1974). Eine pleistozäne Avifauna aus der Ghar Dalam-Höhle, Malta. Zeitschrift für Geologische Wissenschaften, 2 (4): 515-523.
Janssen, A. W. (2004), Fossils from the Lower Globigerina Limestone Formation at Wardija, Gozo (Miocene, Aquitanian), with a description of some new pteropod species (Mollusca, Gastropoda). The Central Mediterranean Naturalist, 4 (1): 1-33.
Olsson, S. L. (1976). Fossil woodcocks: an extinct species from Puerto Rico and an invalid species from Malta (Aves: Scolopacidae: Scolopax). Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 89 (20): 265-274.
Storch, G. (1974): Quartäre Fledermaus-Faunen von der Insel Malta. Senckenbergiana Lethaea, 55: 407-434.

Note: I edited my own comment below to articulate a sentence better, the original comment has been deleted and replaced with the slightly amended one.


  1. You can't set pronunciation rules for taxonomic names. People pronounce any way they want. How is a person who doesn't know Maltese suppose to know what "gh" actually stand for?

    Even the "straightforward" names have varying pronunciations. An example is the common northeast U.S. land snail Venridens ligera. Some, including myself, pronounce the g in ligera like a hard g, while others like a soft g. Who is right?

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  3. I always find the restriction to the 26 'Latin' letters in itself interesting, since at least one of those letters (W) could be argued to be almost as unique to English and a couple of other northern European languages as other letters are to eastern European languages.

  4. Indeed, and in my opinion this is one very interesting 'philosophical' difference between binomial names and common names. Whereas common animal names can be used to signify a whole range of objects and metaphors pertaining to them, binomial names in themselves are purely literary creations (ideally) stripped of ambiguity and irrelevant external references, but also devoid of the organic development and cultural context of a language.

    To over-simplify and attempt to answer your (rhetorical?) last question and the similar one I posed, both parties would be right, since pronunciation is an artefact of speech, which is not taken into consideration by taxonomy, and rightly so. Science should remain as objectivist as possible.


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