THE PRONUNCIATION OF LATIN

Ancient and Modern Pronunciations




We cannot be sure exactly how the ancient Romans pronounced their Latin, although the discipline of Historical Linguistics has given us a reasonably good idea of their general spoken practice. The early borrowings from Latin into various languages give some idea of the Roman pronunciation, for example Gothic "wins" meaning 'wine' was borrowed from Latin "vinum"; this shows the -w- pronunciation of -v- in Latin clearly, at least at the time that the borrowing took place.

In English speaking countries, two problems arise: First, are we to pronounce -v- as -w- is pronounced in English, or like English -v-? And then are we to say -ch- for Latin -c-, palatalizing the consonant before the fronted vowels, as in Italian, or pronounce it like English hard -k-? Teachers trained in the tradition of the Catholic Church will generally use the fricative -v- and the palatalized -ch-, others will use the other sounds, which the majority of modern scholars feels to be more authentic. A great deal of heat, if not light, has been spent on the problem of the "correct pronunciation of Latin". Probably most students will go with the method that their teachers use., but whichever way you follow, remember that this is a matter of scholarship, not of religion or faith. If there is any overriding parameter of judgment, it should probably be on the side of convenience, but in the last analysis the student who is really concerned with the way Latin may have sounded, as a part of his esthetic appreciation of a poet like Vergil, must try to find out the best way, so far as he can determine it, and follow it.

One person finds it ludicrous to read Vergil with an accent which appeared a thousand years after the poet's death; but another reads Vergil the way Dante read him, thinking this is good enough for him. Here as elsewhere de gustibus non disputandum est.

But if you are going to try to read Latin authentically, be sure you do not aspirate the stop-consonants, which is one of the oddities of English which makes the study of English so far for most others. It is virtually necessary to say "arpor" for 'tree" in order to avoid the Anglicized "arbhor". We know from grammarians that the Romans said "urps" for the city of Rome, and this is probably typical of their general pronunciation of the stop consonants. Furthermore, you should not use that nondescript English -r-, but roll your -r- broadly, as most of the Romanic language do. Whether it is a tongue trill, or a throat rumble is not important, so long as it isn't an English vanishing- consonant with a tongue flap (like "berry" pronounced 'Betty') or an American hybrid.

More important is the matter of the pronunciation of verse, for which see Section 14) of this supplement for a full discussion. The substitution of stressed accent in the place of genuinely LONG vowels is arbitrary and quite against the nature of both Greek and Latin poetry, which was length-conscious without any special attention to stress. If this process is justified by saying that it is a habit, understand that it is a bad habit, and please cut it out. Substituting STRESS for LENGTH is about as sensible as tapping your foot every time you hear a Chinese rising tone.

Incidentally much the same misfortune has accrued to the sensitive and lovely Classical Greek language, where a perfectly attested pitch inflection of a musical fifth (marked by an acute accent in the Alexandrian period for the benefit of benighted foreigners like us) is regularly replaced by a heavy stress. This identical stress is also used for the circumflex, which loses its double-length and up-and-down musical inflection, so reminiscent of Swedish. And (believe it or not!) this same stress is used for the grave, which is nothing more than the replacement of an acute by a low (barytone) at base level, and is so marked in some extant papyri on every syllable for real dunderheads in the Alexandrian schools. But for the pig-headed, caution to the winds!

If you did these thoughtless things to modern Bengali, people would fail to understand you, or jeer if you persisted. But since the Classical peoples are not around to defend themselves, it look like a case linguistic open-season on whatever is around. But the bottom line: You are losing authenticity, and more important a large measure of esthetic appreciation.

...in conclusion

As a practical way of reading Latin, I have a simple suggestion. Pronounce it pretty much as if you were speaking Italian, so the vowels come out strong and clear as if in Italian Opera. I would use the /v/ for /w/ since it is clearer and better carrying as a sound, and was so pronounced by the third century A.D. The hard /c/ instead of /ch/ is clear from historical record of the Latin insriptions on stone, which show the way people spoke.

But above all, do NOT read silently and think you are understanding the Latin. And do not speak in the modern manner of standard American speech, where all the vowels gets shoved together in a middle Marlon Brando potato-mouthed mumble. That IS America, no doubt about it, and it was great as a fresh breath in "On the Waterfront" for the l960's. But NOT FOR LATIN. Not for La Strada. Not for Verdi.

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris