STRESS AND ACCENT IN LATIN PROSE




Beside the longs and shorts associated with the vowels, which form the basis of rhythmic reading of Latin poetry, stands a second system of accentuation, which rather oddly is used only in prose. This is a STRESS SYSTEM, which places a heavy accent or increase of loudness, in specific places, as follows:

1) On the first syllable if the word has two syllables. e.g. ROma, fIdes.

2) On the second syllable (called Penult) from the end of a polysyllabic word, if that is long. e.g.: amIcus, moneAtur.

3) On the third syllable (called Antepenult) if the second from end (Penult) is short. e.g. dOminus, sociAbilis.

(Note that Penult and Antepenult are plain Latin words: ante-paene-ultima "before-the-almost-last" and only become recondite and impressive in the mouths of the professional grammarians.)


A few further details:

1) If an enclitic such as -que -ne -ve is used, the accent falls on the syllable directly before that enclitic.

2) But certain words like itAque are not encliticized, and compounds like bene-fIcio are not really compounds, hence keep the accent of the verb.

3) Second declension nouns like VergIlius keep accent on original place in genitive and vocative, e.g. VergIli, probably in the interest of clarity.

In order to find the location of the word's stress, you do need to know the length of the vowel of the next-to-last syllable. The length of a given vowel can be checked by looking in any of the larger Latin dictionaries, but it will be simpler to listen to the teacher's pronunciation and learn it by ear, just as you would do if studying French or Italian. This is made easy by the sound track which operates as soon as you search for a given word. The Latin system of stressing the third or second syllable from the last is the same as we use in English, so this often helps when in doubt.

For example:

In two syllable words... Example: AUctor :Engl. "mOstly"

In three syllable words with the penultimate (next to last) vowel long by the "rule of two consonants"... Example: descIsco" Engl. "horrIfic"

In polysyllabic words without indication of long (as above)... Example:

favorAbilis, exIguus. : Engl. "tErrible"

It may seem odd that Latin employs a different system of pronunciation for daily speech and written prose, as against that used in poetry. This is no doubt a result of the dominating influence of Classical Greek literature on the unformed and susceptible sensibilities of the 4th c. B.C. Romans. Actually the prose stress system is present,although covert, in Latin poetry, and sometimes creates an interesting artistic off-balance effect which the poet intends. Put the other way around, if the stress were violently out of phase with the length system, the results would be unreadable or laughable.

But remember, this stress accentual system is used for prose only, and for verse you must refer to Section 14) for a much more complex situation. There are still traces of the prose accentuation system in verse, although there it is the length of a vowel and syllable which dominates and gives the lines their characteristic rhythms.

The Romans at an earlier date had a stress-based system of versification, in the so-called Saturnian verse form, of which only a few hundred isolated lines are preserved. This is an example:

dabUnt malUm MetElli.... NAEvio poEtae "The Metelli will give trouble to Naevius the poet" This is purely stress-accented, with six beats (marked by the diacritic) and a break in the middle, it compares with English stressed poetry of the Old and Middle English period, as well as traditional verses like:

The King was in the counting house.....counting out his money The queen was in the parlor....eating bread and honey.

The literary influence of Greece won out, stressed poetry was confined to grammarians' examples of ancient practices and the satiric Atellanian verses traditionally chanted by soldiers leading a military victor home in triumphal procession. One wonders what a genuinely Roman epic on the foundation of Rome, written in a Latin roughly parallel to alliterative the style of Beowulf would have been like, especially if the cultural background of Celtic, which is linguistically akin to the Italic languages, rather than Greek had dominated.

Macaulay in a similar vein wondered what the ancient Roman tales would have been like if written in the ballad-poetry form which was then very fashionable, and wrote the not very convincing "Lays of Ancient Rome". These are things we will never know, but it never hurts to dream a bit.

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