Latin spelling and pronunciation

Latin spelling and pronunciation

The Roman alphabet, or Latin alphabet, was adapted from the Old Italic alphabet, to represent the phonemes of the Latin language, which had in turn been borrowed from the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician alphabet. This article deals primarily with modern scholarship's best guess at classical Latin pronunciation (that is, how Latin was spoken among educated people in the late Republic) and spelling, and then touches upon later changes and other variants.

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. Only upper case existed.



#In Early Latin, the letter smallcaps|k was used regularly for /k/ before /a/ but in classical times had been replaced by smallcaps|c, except in a very small number of words.
#IPA|/z/ was not a native Latin phoneme. The letter smallcaps|z was used in Greek loanwords to represent zeta (Ζζ), which is thought to have denoted IPA| [z] by the time the letter was introduced into Latin. Between vowels, there is evidence that the sound was geminated, i.e. IPA| [zz] . Some authorities have maintained that Latin smallcaps|z may have represented IPA|/dz/, but there is no clear evidence for this.
#IPA|/n/ assimilated its place of articulation before velar consonants to IPA| [ŋ] as in "quinque" IPA| ['kʷiŋkʷe] . Also, smallcaps|g probably represented a velar nasal before smallcaps|n ("agnus": IPA| ['aŋnus] ).
#The Latin rhotic was either an alveolar trill IPA| [r] , like Spanish or Italian "rr", or maybe an alveolar flap IPA| [ɾ] , with a tap of the tongue against the upper gums, like Italian or Spanish "r".
#IPA|/l/ is thought to have had two allophones in Latin, comparable to many varieties of modern English. According to Allen (Chapter 1, Section v) it was velarized IPA| [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 IPA| [l] as in English "look".
# and smallcaps|i, in addition to representing vowels, were used to represent the corresponding approximants.

smallcaps|ph, smallcaps|th, and smallcaps|ch were used in Greek loanwords with phi (Φφ IPA|/pʰ/), theta (Θθ IPA|/tʰ/), and chi (Χχ IPA|/kʰ/), respectively. Latin had no aspirated consonants and so these digraphs tended to be pronounced IPA|/p/ (and later IPA|/f/), IPA|/t/, and IPA|/k/, respectively (except by the most careful speakers).

smallcaps|x represented the consonant cluster IPA|/ks/.

Double consonants were geminated (smallcaps|bb IPA|/bː/, smallcaps|cc IPA|/kː/ etc.). Length was distinctive in Latin. For example "anus" IPA|/ˈanus/ ("old woman") or "ānus" IPA|/ˈaːnus/ ("ring, anus") vs. "annus" IPA|/ˈanːus/ ("year"). In Early Latin, double consonants were not marked, but in the 2nd century BC, they began to be distinguished in books (but not in inscriptions) with a diacritical mark known as the sicilicus, which was described as being in the shape of a sickle.

(1) IPA|/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" IPA|/juːs/, "cuius" IPA|/ˈkujjus/. Since such a doubled consonant in the middle of a word makes the preceding syllable heavy, the vowel in that syllable is traditionally marked with a macron in dictionaries, although in fact the vowel is usually short. Compound words preserve the IPA|/j/ sound of the element that begins with it: "adiectīvum" IPA|/adjekˈtiːwum/.

(2) It is likely that, by the Classical period, IPA|/m/ at the end of words was pronounced weakly, either voiceless or simply by nasalizing (and lengthening) the preceding vowel. For instance "decem" ("ten") was probably pronounced IPA| [ˈdekẽː] . In addition to the metrical features of Latin poetry, the fact that all such endings in words of more than two syllables lost the final smallcaps|m in the descendant Romance languages strengthens this hypothesis. For simplicity, and because this is not known for certain, smallcaps|m is always represented as the phoneme IPA|/m/ here and in other references.



* Each vowel letter (with the possible exception of smallcaps|y) represents at least two phonemes. smallcaps|a can represent either short IPA|/a/ or long IPA|/aː/, smallcaps|e is either IPA|/e/ or IPA|/eː/, etc.

*Short mid vowels were pronounced with a different quality than their long counterparts, being also more open: open-mid IPA|/e/ and IPA|/o/ (IPA| [ɛ] and IPA| [ɔ] , respectively). The same may, to some extent, be true for the close vowels as well: near-close IPA|/i/ and IPA|/u/ (IPA| [ɪ] and IPA| [ʊ] ). [Allen, "Vox Latina" p. 47 ff.]

* was used in Greek loanwords with upsilon (Unicode|ϒυ IPA|/y/). Latin originally had no close front rounded vowel, and speakers tended to pronounce such loanwords as IPA|/u/ (in archaic Latin) or IPA|/i/ (in classical and late Latin) if they were unable to produce IPA| [y] .


*, smallcaps|oe, smallcaps|av, smallcaps|ei, smallcaps|ev were originally diphthongs: smallcaps|ae was IPA|/ai/, smallcaps|oe was IPA|/oi/, smallcaps|av IPA|/au/, smallcaps|ei IPA|/ei/ and smallcaps|ev IPA|/eu/. In Archaic Latin smallcaps|ae was IPA|/ai/ and smallcaps|oe was IPA|/oi/. However, smallcaps|ae and smallcaps|oe started to become monophthongs, IPA|/ɛː/ and IPA|/eː/ respectively in Classical Latin, at the beginning of the imperial period. This process, however, does not seem to have completed before 3rd century AD in Vulgar Latin, and some scholars say that it may be have been regular by the fifth century AD. [Clackson & Horrocks, pp. 273-274]

Other orthographic notes

* and smallcaps|k both represent IPA|/k/. In archaic inscriptions, smallcaps|c is primarily used before smallcaps|i and smallcaps|e, while smallcaps|k is used before smallcaps|a. However, in classical times, the usage of smallcaps|k had been reduced to a very small number of native Latin words — the kappa (Κκ) in words borrowed from Greek came to be represented as smallcaps|c instead. smallcaps|q clarified minimal pairs between IPA|/k/ and IPA|/kʷ/, making it possible to distinguish between "cui" IPA|/kui̯/ (with a falling diphthong) and "qui" IPA|/kʷiː/ (with a labialized velar stop).

* In Old Latin, smallcaps|c represented both IPA|/k/ and IPA|/g/. Hence, it was used in the abbreviation of common praenomina (first names): "Gāius" was written as "C." and "Gnaeus" as "Cn." Misunderstanding of this convention has led to the erroneous spelling "Caius".

* The semi-consonant IPA|/j/ was regularly geminated between two vowels, but this is not indicated in the spelling. Before a vocalic I the semi-consonant was often omitted altogether, for instance in "reicit" IPA|/ˈrejjikit/ "he/she/it threw back".


Vowel and consonant length were more significant and more clearly defined in Latin than in modern English. Length is the duration of time that a particular sound is held before proceeding to the next sound in a word. Unfortunately, "vowel length" is a confusing term for English speakers, who in their language call "long vowels" what are in most cases diphthongs, rather than plain vowels. In the modern spelling of Latin, especially in dictionaries and academic work, macrons are frequently used to mark long vowels ("ā, ē, ī, ō, ū"), while the breve is sometimes used to indicate that a vowel is short ("ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ").

Long consonants were indicated through doubling (cf. "anus" and "annus", two different words with distinct pronunciations), but Latin orthography did not distinguish between long and short vowels, nor between the vocalic and consonantal uses of I and V. A shortlived convention of spelling long vowels by doubling the vowel letter is associated with the poet Lucius Accius. Later spelling conventions marked long vowels with an apex (a diacritic similar to an acute accent), or in the case of long I, by increasing the height of the letter. Distinctions of vowel 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 have either been lost or replaced by other phonetic contrasts.

yllables 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.


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 IPA|/i/ and IPA|/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.

Latin today


Modern usage, even when printing classical Latin texts, varies in respect of "i" and "v". Many publishers (such as Oxford University Press) continue the old convention of using "I" (upper case) and "i" (lower case) for both IPA|/i/ and IPA|/j/, and "V" (upper case) and "u" (lower case) for both IPA|/u/ and IPA|/w/. This is also the convention used in this article.

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

Most modern editions 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 IPA|/w/ to IPA|/v/ in post-classical times. This approach is also recommended in the help page for the Latin Wikipedia.

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 regular texts. Occasionally, mainly in early printed texts up to the 18th century, one may see a circumflex used to indicate a long vowel where this makes a difference to the sense, for instance "Româ" IPA|/ˈroːmaː/ "from Rome" (ablative) compared to "Roma" IPA|/ˈroːma/ "Rome" (nominative). [Gilbert, Allan H.: [ "Mock Accents in Renaissance and Modern Latin (in Comment and Criticism)"] , "PMLA", Vol. 54, No. 2. (Jun., 1939), pp. 608-610.] 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 since the third century have not made any distinction between long and short vowels, while they have kept the accents in the same places, so the use of accent marks allows speakers to read aloud correctly even words that they have never heard spoken aloud.


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.

Latin words in common use in English are generally fully assimilated into the English sound system, with little to mark them as foreign (indeed, native speakers do not generally even think of these Latin words as 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 IPA|/iː/ in English. In the Oxford style, "ae" represents IPA|/eɪ/, in "formulae", for example. "Ae" in some words tends to be given an IPA|/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 other teachers do not always point out that the particular accent their students learn is not actually the way ancient Romans spoke.

Ecclesiastical pronunciation

Because of the central position of Rome within the Roman Catholic Church, an Italian pronunciation of Latin became commonly accepted. This pronunciation corresponds to that of the Latin-derived words in Italian, and in some respects to the general pronunciation of Latin everywhere in the Middle Ages.

The following are the main points that distinguish ecclesiastical pronunciation from Classical Latin pronunciation:

* Vowels are long when stressed and in an open syllable, otherwise short. [This change, like many of the others, dated from early mediaeval times and was by no means limited to Italy: "Already in the Old English period vowel-length had ceased to be observed except in the penultimate syllable of polysyllambic words, where it made a difference to the position of the accent ... Otherwise new rhythmical laws were applied, the first syllable of a disyllabic word, for instance being made heavy by lengthening the vowel if it were originally light (hence e.g. "pāter" ... for "pǎter)" - William Sidney Allen, "Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin" (Cambridge University Press 1978 ISBN 0521379369), p. 102]
* The digraphs AE and OE represent IPA|/e/. [This simplification was already common in rural speech as far back as the time of Varro (116 BC – 27 BC): cf. "De lingua latina", 5:97 (referred to in Jane Stuart Smith, "Phonetics and Philology: Sound Change in Italic" (Oxford University Press 2004 ISBN 0199257736), p. 47).]
* C denotes IPA| [tʃ] (as in English "ch") before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
* G denotes IPA| [dʒ] (as in English "j") before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
* H is silent except in two words: "mihi" and "nihil", where it is pronounced as IPA| [k] . [This pronunciation of "mihi" and "nihil" may have been an attempt to reintroduce the sound of H intervocalically, where it seems to have been lost even in literary Latin by the end of the Republican period (Jane Stuart Smith, "Phonetics and Philology: Sound Change in Italic" (Oxford University Press 2004 ISBN 0199257736), p. 48).]
* S between vowels represents a voiced IPA| [z] ; [In ecclesiastical Latin, following usage in Rome rather than in Italy in general, this intervocalic softening is very slight ( [ Liber Usualis,] p. xxxviij).] when followed by a C, they merge into IPA|/ʃ/.
* TI, if followed by a vowel and not preceded by s, t, x, represents IPA| [tsi] (like English 'tsee'). [ [ Liber Usualis,] p. xxxviij]
* V as a vowel IPA|/u/ is clearly distinguished from the consonant IPA|/v/ (Classical IPA|/w/), except after G, Q or S, where it is pronounced as IPA|/w/. The IPA|/v/ sound is now distinguished from the other two sounds also in writing (Vv, as opposed to Uu)
* TH represents IPA|/t/.
* PH represents IPA|/f/.
* CH represents IPA|/k/.
* Y represents IPA|/i/.
* GN represents IPA|/ɲ/.
* X represents IPA|/ks/, the IPA|/s/ of which merges with a following C to form IPA|/ʃ/, as in "excelsis" — IPA|/ekʃelsis/ [ [ Liber Usualis,] p. xxxviij]
*Z represents IPA|/dz/.

In his "Vox Latina: A guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin", William Sidney Allen remarked that this pronunciation, used by the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and elsewhere, and whose adoption Pope Pius X recommended in a 1912 letter to the Archbishop of Bourges, "is probably less far removed from classical Latin than any other 'national' pronunciation". [William Sidney Allen, "Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin" (Cambridge University Press 1978 ISBN 0521379369), p. 108]

It is the most commonly recognized pronunciation, and the method 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 ecclesiastical Latin, which was criticised for being entirely anachronistic. However, some contemporary musicians try to produce authentic regional pronunciation as far as possible.

Derivative languages

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 Roman Empire accelerated the process, separating the populations of western Europe from each other, which made it less likely for a proto-Romance speaker to need to speak to someone from a distant locality, and encouraged 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. In Classical times, 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 IPA|/h/ and final IPA|/m/.
* Pronunciation of IPA|/ai/ and IPA|/oi/ as IPA|/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 IPA|/u/ with long IPA|/oː/ and short IPA|/i/ with long IPA|/eː/.
* Total loss of Greek sounds (which were never part of the language).
* Palatalization of IPA|/k/ before IPA|/e/ and IPA|/i/, probably first into IPA|/kj/, then IPA|/tj/, then IPA|/tsj/ before finally developing into IPA|/ts/ in loanwords into languages like German, /IPA|tʃ/ in Florentine, IPA|/θ/ or IPA|/s/ in Spanish (depending on dialect) and IPA|/s/ in French, Portuguese, and Catalan. French had a second palatalisation of IPA|/k/ to IPA|/ʃ/ (French "ch") before Latin IPA|/a/ [See Pope, Chap 6, Section 4.] .
* Palatalization of IPA|/g/ before IPA|/e/ and IPA|/i/, and of IPA|/j/, into /IPA|dʒ/. French underwent a second palatalisation, of IPA|/g/ before Latin IPA|/a/ [See Pope, Chap 6, Section 4.] .
* Palatalization of IPA|/ti/ followed by vowel (if not preceded by s, t, x) into IPA|/tsj/.
* The change of IPA|/w/ (except after IPA|/k/) and, between vowels, IPA|/b/ into IPA|/β/, then /v/ (in Spanish, IPA| [β] was reduced to an allophone of IPA|/b/, instead).


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

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."

# Ancient Roman orthography (before 2nd century ["The word-divider is regularly found on all good inscriptions, in papyri, on wax tablets, and even in "graffiti" from the earliest Republican times through the Golden Age and well into the Second Century. ... Throughout these periods the word-divider was a dot placed half-way between the upper and the lower edge of the line of writing. ... As a rule, interpuncta are used simply to divide words, except that prepositions are only rarely separated from the word they govern, if this follows next. ... The regular use of the interpunct as a word-divider continued until sometime in the Second Century, when it began to fall into disuse, and Latin was written with increasing frequency, both in papyrus and on stone or bronze, in "scriptura continua." E. Otha Wingo, "Latin Punctuation in the Classical Age", Mouton, 1972, pp 15–16.] )
# 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.
# 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.
# Ancient Roman pronunciation
#:IPA| [ˈarma wiˈrumkʷe ˈkanoː ˈtroijeː kʷiː ˈpriːmus ab ˈoːriːs
#:IPA|iːˈtaliãːm ˈfaːtoː ˈprofugus, laːˈwiːnakʷe ˈweːnit
#:IPA|ˈliːtora mult ill et ˈterriːs jakˈtaːtus et ˈaltoː
#:IPA|uiː ˈsuperũːm ˈseːweː ˈmemorẽːm juːˈnoːnis ob ˈiːrãːm] |

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 .

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

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



* Allen, W. Sidney. (2003) "Vox Latina — a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin", second edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37936-9.
* Clackson, James & Geoffrey Horrocks. (2007) "The Blackwell History of the Latin Language" Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-6209-8.
* Pekkanen, Tuomo. (1999) "Ars grammatica — Latinan kielioppi". Helsinki University Press, 3rd-6th edition. ISBN 951-570-022-1.
* Pope, M. K. (1952 [1934] ) "From Latin to Modern French with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman", revised edition. Manchester University Press.

ee also

*Latin alphabet
*Latin grammar
*Latin regional pronunciation
*Traditional English pronunciation of Latin

External links

* [ Ecclesiastical Latin] in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia.
* [ The Roman Pronunciation of Latin] , by Frances Ellen Lord, in the Gutenberg Project.

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