Phonematic Length of the Latin Vowels

In all printed texts, other than high-school textbooks, the Latin vowels (-a-,-e-,-i-,-o-,-u-) are written without a differentiating mark or diacritic to indicate length. Sometimes length does make a difference in meaning, this is what Linguists call a "phonematic difference", but in many cases length does not make a distinction of meaning, which is to say that it is not phonematic. Linguistics define the phoneme as: "The minimum distinctive sound", or "the smallest sound unit which can effect a distinction of meaning." For an example, when you do a search in the Dictionary, you will see (and hear) the difference between the two verbs "incido", which are distinguished by the vowel length of the -i-.

In the computerized dictionary, you will find longs noted only when phonematic differences are involved. As in most languages, many things must be learned by context and experience, and are not included in printed texts.. In studying Russian and Chinese you must learn the pitch accents which are an essential part of the phonology, and will affect meanings, but they are never marked in printed texts. Writing them all in would be considered a sheer barbarism, and so it is with Latin. In the Review Grammar section longs are marked in as an aid to learning and identifying forms.

When you search for a word in the dictionary, you hear the spoken word, pronounced in an authentic manner, which shows by the lengths of the vowels as pronounced, which are long and which are short. Not only will this serve as a mnemonic aid to learning, it will fix in your mind the sound of the word you are looking at, and prepare you for a correct metrical interpretation when you read Latin poetry. This auditory exposure will also steer you away from the evil practice of using stress on vowels which are long, which is historically unauthentic and completely against the nature of Latin poetic usage.

Actually, the only way we know which vowels are long and which are short, is by carefully examining the occurrences of each word in lines of poetry which come from the best authors of the Augustan period. A medical doctor named Smets constructed a dictionary on this principle in the l6th century, and revision of Smets' approach by modern scholars provides our present knowledge of the longs. There is no God-given information on the length of the Latin vowels, just the established practice of the Roman poets..

As you read poetry, the lines when read correctly will to a certain extent show you which are long, but before you get to the poets, it will be important to listen to the pattern of accentuation (actually a different but related matter) which your teacher employs, since this will teach you lengths as an indirect concomitant of accent (stress), which is used in Latin prose and in daily speech.

A full discussion of long vowels as used in Latin poetry is given in the next section on this index: Poetry and Latin Verse.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College