Latin spelling and pronunciation

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The Roman alphabet or Latin alphabet was adapted from an Etruscan alphabet, to represent the phonemes of the Latin language. The Etruscans, in turn, had taken their alphabet from the Greeks, who adapted it from the Phoenicians. This article deals with modern scholarship's best guess at Classical Latin pronunciation (that is, how Latin was spoken among educated people in the late Republic), and then touches upon other variants.


[edit] Letters and phonemes

In classical times, each letter of the alphabet corresponded very closely with a phoneme, in the tables below letters (and digraphs) are paired with the phonemes they represent in IPA.

[edit] Consonants

  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
plain labial
Plosive voiced B /b/ D /d/ G /ɡ/  
voiceless P /p/   T /t/   C or K /k/ 1 QV /kʷ/
Fricative voiced   Z /z/2
voiceless   F /f/ S /s/ H /h/
Nasal M /m/ N /n/   G/N /ŋ/3    
Rhotic R /r/4      
Approximant   L /l/5 I /j/6 V /w/6
  1. The letter K was in early Latin regularly used for /k/ before /a/ but in classical times had been replaced by C except in a very small number of words.
  2. /z/ was not a native Latin phoneme. The letter Z was used in Greek loanwords to represent Zeta (Ζζ), which is thought to have denoted /z/ by the time the letter was intoroduced into Latin. Some authorities have maintained that Latin Z may have represented /dz/ but there is no clear evidence for this.
  3. /n/ assimilated its place of articulation before velar consonants to [ŋ] as in quinque ['kʷiŋkʷe]. Also, <G> represented a velar nasal before <N> (agnus: ['aŋnus]).
  4. The Latin rhotic was either an alveolar trill [r], like Spanish or Italian double <RR>, or maybe an alveolar flap [ɾ], with a tap of the tongue against the upper gums, like Italian or Spanish <R>.
  5. /l/ is thought to have had two allophones in Latin, not unlike many varieties of modern English. According to Allen (Chapter 1, Section v) it was velarized [ɫ] as in English full at the end of a word or before another consonant; in other positions it was a plain alveolar lateral approximant [l] as in English look.
  6. V and I, in addition to representing vowels, were used to represent the corresponding semivowels.

PH, TH, and CH were used in Greek loanwords with Phi (Φφ /pʰ/), Theta (Θθ /tʰ/), and Chi (Χχ /kʰ/) respectively. Latin had no aspirated consonants and so these digraphs tended to be pronounced like P, T, and C/K (except by the most careful speakers).

X represented the consonant cluster /ks/.

Geminate consonants were written double (BB /bː/, CC /kː/ etc.). Length was distinctive in Latin. For example anus /ˈanus/ (old woman) or ānus /ˈaːnus/ (ring, anus) vs. annus /ˈanːus/ (year). In Early Latin, double consonants were not marked; but in the second century B.C.E., they began to be distinguished in books (but not in inscriptions) with a diacritical mark known as the sicilicus.

(1) /j/ appears at the beginning of words before a vowel, or in the middle of the words between two vowels; in the latter case the sound is doubled: iūs /juːs/, cūius /ˈkuːjjus/. Compound words preserve the /j/ sound of the element that begins with it: adiectīuum /adjekˈtiːwum/.

(2) It is likely that, by the Classical period, /m/ at the end of words was pronounced weakly, either devoiced or simply by nasalizing (and lengthening) the preceding vowel. For instance decem ("ten") was probably pronounced [ˈdekẽː]. In addition to the metrical features of Latin poetry, the fact that all such endings lost the final M in the descendent Romance languages strengthens this hypothesis. For simplicity, and because this is not known for certain, M is just treated as the consonant /m/ here and in other references.

[edit] Vowels

  Front Central Back
long short long short long short
High I   /iː/ I   /i/   V   /uː/ V   /u/
Mid E   /eː/ E   /e/   O   /oː/ O   /o/
Low   A   /aː/ A   /a/  
  • Each vowel letter (with the possible exception of Y) represents at least two phonemes. A can represent either short /a/ or long /aː/, E is either /e/ or /eː/, etc.
  • Y was used in Greek loanwords with Upsilon (ϒυ /y/). Latin originally had no close front rounded vowel, and speakers tended to pronounce such loanwords with [u] (in archaic Latin) or [i] (in classical and late Latin) if they were unable to produce [y].

AE, OE, AV, EI, EV were diphthongs: AE was /ai/, OE was /oi/, AV /au/, EI /ei/ and EV /eu/. The diphthongs of AE and OE generally became monophthongs, /ɛː/ and /eː/ respectively, after the period of the Roman Republic.

[edit] Vowel length

Vowel length was more significant and more clearly defined in Latin than in modern English. Latin orthography did not distinguish between long and short vowels, nor between the vocalic and consonantal uses of I and V. This article adopts the convention used in many modern editions of classical texts (and for instance in the Oxford Latin Dictionary) of using I/i for both vowel and consonant, and V (upper case) and u (lower case) for both vowel and consonant. Other conventions used I/i and U/u for the vowels and J/j and V/v for the consonants — see below. Most modern editions use V/v for consonantal V, U/u for vowel V, and I/i for both consonantal I and vowel I.

A shortlived convention of spelling long vowels by doubling the vowel letter is associated with the poet Accius. Later spelling conventions marked long vowels with an "apex", or in the case of long I, by increasing the height of the letter. For the modern use of macrons (āēīōū) to mark long vowels, see below.

Distinctions of length became less important in later Latin, and have ceased to be phonemic in the modern Romance languages, where the previous long and short versions of the vowels are represented by differences in quality alone, except for A where the distinction has disappeared.

[edit] Elision

Where one word ended with a vowel (including a nasalised vowel, represented by a vowel plus M) and the next word began with a vowel, the first vowel, at least in verse, was regularly elided — in other words omitted altogether, or possibly (in the case of /i/ and /u/) pronounced like the corresponding semivowel. Elision also occurs in Ancient Greek but in that language it is shown in writing by the vowel in question being replaced by an apostrophe, whereas in Latin elision is not indicated at all in the orthography, but can be deduced from the verse form.

[edit] Other orthographic notes

  • C and K both represent /k/. However, K is used in only a very small number of native Latin words — kappa (Κκ) in words borrowed from Greek was normally represented as C. Q clarified minimal pairs between /k/ and /kʷ/, making it possible to distinguish between disyllabic cui /ˈkui/ and monosyllabic qui /kʷiː/.
  • In Old Latin, C represented both /k/ and /g/. Hence, it was used in the abbreviation of common first names: Gāius was written as C. and Gnaeus as Cn.. Misunderstanding of this convention has led to the false spelling Caius.
  • The semi-consonant /j/ is regularly geminated between two vowels, but this is not indicated in the spelling. Before a vocalic I the semi-consonant is often omitted altogether, for instance /ˈreːjjikit/ 'he/she threw back' is spelt reicit rather than reiicit or indeed reiiicit.

[edit] Syllables and stress

In Latin the distinction between heavy and light syllables is important as it determines where the main stress of a word falls, and is the key element in classical Latin versification. A heavy syllable (sometimes called a long syllable, but this risks confusion with long vowels) is a syllable that either contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in a consonant. If a single consonant occurs between two syllables within a word, it is considered to belong to the following syllable, so the syllable before the consonant is light if it contains a short vowel. If two or more consonants (or a geminated consonant) occur between syllables within a word, the first of the consonants goes with the first syllable, making it heavy. Certain combinations of consonants, e.g tr, are exceptions: both consonants go with the second syllable.

In Latin words of two syllables, the stress is on the first syllable. In words of three or more syllables, the stress is on the penultimate syllable if this is heavy, otherwise on the antepenultimate syllable.

[edit] Modern spelling conventions

Modern usage, even when printing classical Latin texts, varies in respect of I and V. Many publishers continue the convention of using I for both /i/ and /j/ and V for both /u/ and /w/. However u is by convention used as the [lower-case] equivalent of V as both vowel and semi-consonant (the ancient Romans did not have lower-case as we know it).

An alternative approach, less common today, is to use I,i and U,u for the vowels, and J,j and V,v for the semi-consonants.

Many books adopt an intermediate position, distinguishing between U and V but not between I and J. Usually the semi-consonant V after Q or S is still printed as u rather than v, probably because in this position it did not change from /w/ to /v/ in post-classical times. This approach is also recommended in the help page for the Latin Wikipedia.

Possibly the most fitting way is to not distinguish between V and U but to use V as the capital version and u as the lowercase version. As V was originally used by the Romans and the lowercase version of that letter originally would have been u.

Textbooks and dictionaries indicate the quantity of vowels by putting a macron or horizontal bar above the long vowel, but this is not generally done in printed texts. Since the metre of Latin poetry is critically dependent on the alternation of heavy and light syllables, student texts on the subject tend to mark vowel length. Occasionally in inscriptions one may see a circumflex used to indicate a long vowel where this makes a difference to the sense, for instance Româ /ˈroːmaː/ 'from Rome' (ablative) compared to Roma /ˈroːma/ 'Rome' (nominative). Sometimes, for instance in Roman Catholic service books, an acute accent over a vowel is used to indicate the stressed syllable. This would be redundant for one who knew the classical rules of accentuation, and also made the correct distinction between long and short vowels, but most Latin speakers between the 3rd and 21st centuries did not make any distinction between long and short vowels, while they kept the accents in the same places, so the use of accent marks allows a speaker to read aloud correctly even words that they have never heard spoken aloud.

[edit] Latin pronunciation today

[edit] Loan words and formal study

When Latin words are spoken in a living language today, there is ordinarily little or no attempt to pronounce them as the Romans did. Myriad systems have arisen for pronouncing the language — at least one for each language in the modern world whose speakers learn Latin. In most cases, Latin pronunciation is adapted to the phonology of the person's own language, although obviously this means that people are not pronouncing Latin the way it was pronounced by Romans.

Latin words in common use in English are fully assimilated into the English sound system, with little to mark them as foreign (indeed, people do not generally even think of Latin words as being foreign), for example, cranium, saliva. Other words have a stronger Latin feel to them, usually because of spelling features such as the diphthongs ae and oe (occasionally written æ and œ) which both denote /iː/ in English. In the Oxford style, ae represents /eɪ/, in "formulae" for example. Ae in some words tends to be given an /aɪ/ pronunciation, for example, curriculum vitae.

Of course, using loan words in the context of the language borrowing them is a markedly different situation from the study of Latin itself. In this classroom setting, instructors and students attempt to recreate at least some sense of the original pronunciation. What is taught to native anglophones is suggested by the sounds of today's Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin. Instructors who take this approach rationalize that Romance vowels probably come closer to the original pronunciation than those of any other modern language (see also the section below on "Daughters of Latin").

However, other languages—including Romance family members—all have their own interpretations of the Latin phonological system, applied both to loan words and formal study of Latin. But English, Romance, or otherwise, teachers do not always point out that the particular accent their students learn is not actually the way ancient Romans spoke.

[edit] Ecclesiastical or Italianate pronunciation

Further information: Ecclesiastical Latin

Over time the pronunciation of Latin became what most people recognize as Latin today. This pronunciation, commonly referred to as "Ecclesiastical" or "Church" Latin was the common pronunciation of Latin in Rome after the mid 16th Century, and thereafter of Italy after the late 18th Century. The preference for local phonetic usage is especially true of Italians, who learn Latin with a pronunciation derived from that of modern Italian. Below are the main points that distinguish Italianate Pronunciation from Classical Latin pronunciation:

  • Vowel length is lost: vowels are long when stressed and in an open syllable, otherwise short.
  • C denotes [tʃ] (as in English "ch") before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
  • The digraphs AE and OE represent /e/.
  • G denotes [dʒ] (as in English "j") before AE, OE, E, I or Y
  • H is silent.
  • S may represent a voiced [z] between vowels.
  • TI, if followed by a vowel and not preceded by s, t, x, represents an affricated [tsj] (like English 'tsy').
  • V remains as the vowel /u/, but the semi-consonant /w/ becomes /v/, except after G, Q or S.
  • TH represents /t/.
  • PH represents /f/.
  • CH represents /k/.
  • Y represents /i/ or /j/.
  • GN represents /ɲ/.

This Italian pronunciation greatly influenced English Catholic pronunciation of Latin after the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Britain. In the 19th century, it was also given notable standardization north of the Alps from its use by the monks of Solesmes Abbey for their reform of Gregorian chant. It is the most commonly recognized pronunciation, and the method which is still most widely used today as a sort of standard pronunciation in singing. A recent example of its use occurred in the motion picture The Passion of the Christ, recorded in Aramaic and very ecclesiastical Latin, which has been severely and validly criticised for being entirely anachronistic. However, some contemporary musicians try to produce authentic regional pronunciation as far as possible.

[edit] Daughters of Latin

Because it gave rise to many modern languages, Latin did not strictly "die": it merely evolved over centuries of use and from this was born the great diversity of the Romance languages. The end of the political unity of the western Roman Empire accelerated the process, sending western Europe into an economic depression and curtailing the mobility of the population, making it less likely for a proto-Romance speaker to need to speak to someone from a distant locality, and encouraging the divergence of local dialects. Moreover, written Latin, like written English, was always to some degree an artificial literary language, somewhat different in grammar, syntax, and lexicon from the vernacular. Today's differences can be quite striking. Even in Classical times, we know that the people in the street did not speak the formal, Classical tongue. They spoke what is known as Vulgar Latin, which was already very different from its sibling, mainly because of simplifications in its grammar and phonology. It is this Vulgar Latin that became modern French, Italian, etc.

Key features of Vulgar Latin and Romance include:

  • Total loss of /h/ and final /m/.
  • Pronunciation of /ai/ and /oi/ as /e/.
  • Conversion of the distinction of vowel length into a distinction of height, and subsequent merger of some of these phonemes. Most Romance languages merged short /u/ with long /oː/ and short /i/ with long /eː/.
  • Total loss of Greek sounds (which were never really part of the language anyway).
  • Palatalization of /k/ before /e/ and /i/, probably first into /kj/, then /tj/, then /tsj/ before finally developing into /ts/ in loanwords into languages like German, // in Florentine, /θ/ or /s/ in Spanish (depending on dialect) and /s/ in French, Portuguese, and Catalan. French had a second palatalisation of /k/ to /ʃ/ (French ch) before Latin /a/<ref>See Pope, Chap 6, Section 4.</ref>.
  • Palatalization of /g/ before /e/ and /i/, and of /j/, into //. French has a second palatalisation of /g/ before Latin /a/<ref>See Pope, Chap 6, Section 4.</ref>.
  • Palatalization of /ti/ followed by vowel (if not preceded by s, t, x) into /tsj/.
  • The change of /w/ (except after /k/) and sometimes /b/ into /β/, then /v/ (in Spanish, [β] was reduced to an allophone of /b/, instead).

For further details, please refer to the relevant articles below:

Latin language
Vulgar Latin
Romance languages

[edit] Examples

The following examples are both in verse, which demonstrates several features more clearly than prose.

[edit] Classical Latin

Virgil's Aeneid, Book 1, verses 1–4. Quantitative metre. Translation: "I sing of arms and the man, who, driven by fate, came first from the borders of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian shores; he [was] much afflicted both on lands and on the deep by the power of the gods, because of fierce Juno's vindictive wrath."

1. Ancient Roman orthography


2. Traditional (19th Century) English orthography

Arma virumque cano, Trojæ qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Lavinaque venit
Litora; multum ille et terris jactatus et alto
Vi superum, sævæ memorem Junonis ob iram.

3. Modern orthography with macrons (as Oxford Latin Dictionary)

Arma uirumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam fātō profugus, Lāuīnaque uēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
uī superum, saeuae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram.

3. Ancient Roman pronunciation

[ˈarma wiˈrumkʷe ˈkanoː ˈtroːjjai kʷiː ˈpriːmus ab ˈoːriːs
iːˈtaliãː ˈfaːtoː ˈprofugus, laːˈwiːnakʷe ˈweːnit
ˈliːtora mult ill et ˈterriːs jakˈtaːtus et ˈaltoː
wiː ˈsuperũː ˈsaiwai ˈmemorẽː juːˈnoːnis ob ˈiːrãː]

Note the elisions in mult(um) and ill(e) in the third line. For a fuller discussion of the prosodic features of this passage, see Latin poetry: Dactylic hexameter.

[edit] Mediaeval Latin

Beginning of Pange Lingua by St Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). Rhymed accentual metre. Translation: "Extol, [my] tongue, the mystery of the glorious body and the precious blood, which the fruit of a noble womb, the king of nations, poured out as the price of the world."

1. Traditional orthography as in Roman Catholic service books (stressed syllable marked with an acute accent on words of three syllables or more).

Pange lingua gloriósi
Córporis mystérium,
Sanguinísque pretiósi,
quem in mundi prétium
fructus ventris generósi
Rex effúdit géntium.

2. "Italianate" ecclesiastical pronunciation

[ˈpandʒe ˈliŋgwa gloriˈoːzi
ˈkorporis misˈteːrium
saŋgwiˈniskʷe pretsiˈoːzi
kʷem in ˈmundi ˈpreːtsium
ˈfruktus ˈventris dʒeneˈroːzi
reks efˈfuːdit ˈdʒentsium]

[edit] Notes


[edit] References

  • Allen, W. Sidney. Vox Latina — a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin. Cambridge University Press, 1978. ISBN 0-5221-22049-1 (Second edition).
  • Pekkanen, Tuomo. Ars grammatica — Latinan kielioppi. Helsinki University Press, 1999. ISBN 951-570-022-1 (3rd-6th edition).
  • Pope, M. K. From Latin to Modern French with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman. Manchester University Press, 1934, revised edition 1952.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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Latin spelling and pronunciation

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