FILE: Letter, reply to query from a high school student....

Re: Your questions about pronunciation of Latin

From: Doc. Harris, who knows some of the answers

Dear Student

I know you must have wondered why your Latin textbooks has long marks over certain vowels in the words you are studying, and the thought has probably occurred to you that they are there for no better reason than to make the study of Latin even more difficult that it is. You will certainly be surprised if I tell you that this is actually the truth, but truth is not such a simple word, so I feel I should offer you a better explanation in a few words if possible.

When people spoke Latin, they put a stress accent on the third syllable from the end of a word, making is louder (not necessarily longer); but if the second from the end was long (which we will discuss later) they put the accent there. Translated back into Grammaticalese, this can be stated as "Rule of the Antepenult":

Accent goes on the Antepenult, but if Penult is long, put it there.

Note: The Latin words "ultima" or 'last' and "paene" which means 'almost" and furthermore "ante" or 'before' are the atoms out of which these two linguistic molecules are curiously formed. I guess that makes things much clearer, doesn't it?

Why the Romans counted off from the end of the word, which hadn't yet been pronounced, before they decided how to say it, is still not fully understood. It may be something related to the way they did their numerals, for example "nine" is for them "one off from ten" or IX. So counting out years would be MC for Shakespeare's time, and then MCM for this century which is fading fast, then a L for halfway through, add some XX's for decades up to l990, and then our old friend IX for the last niner. Rather than add this all up, I would like to ask a serious Roman that he consider MIM for that last year before MM, but ask as I will, I still get no answer.

The Roman did in fact put an extra dynamic burst onto the third (or sometimes second) vowel from the end of a word, that is something the ancient Roman Grammarians tell us, and we have no reason to doubt their word. And Romans even had a native style of poetry based on accent, like this:

"malum dabunt Metelli Naevio poetae"........which is like:

The King was in the counting house counting out his money
The Queen was in the parlor eating bread an honey.

But this seemed entirely too simple as poetry, so they converted quickly to the fad of writing poetry a la Grecque. Not surprising, and we've done the same with the English language. Would you prefer the above couplet as a model for English, instead of a highly polished and intellectual couplet like:

"This is the way the world ends........
.............. not with a bang but a whimper.:

Each age must find what is suitable and also representative of its inner nature. The Romans reached to the Greek Masters, although we have no idea what they considered poetry as sung in the cafes and bistros of Ostia, perhaps it was something like the poetic genius of Country Western versification today.

But at Rome everyone who was going someday to be anyone had to study Greek, the way we have to study Latin. But the Greeks never heard of the Rule of the Antepenult. They used a system in which vowels could be long or short, and some even over-long. This was foreign to the nature of the Latin languages, but the myth of Procrustes and his Sizing Bed (something the socially conscious Romans really appreciated), was so appealing that they decided to use it on their language in the writing of poetry. But in order to remain intelligible, they left the Rule of the Antepenult alone and in daily life continued to count off from the end until the end.

Now we get back to the marks over vowels in the Latin textbooks, something a Greeks would have called a "macron" if they had used it, but of course they didn't. We still call it a macron because the Romans knew the Greek would have called it a macron if they had a use for it, but of course........ This makes sense in terms of what we call "The Classical Tradition", which means keeping around the house forever stuff which should have gone to the dump in the previous decade. But keeping around, it you get used to it and would now never think of letting it go.

Reading Latin poetry (your teacher tells you) you are going to need to know the long and the shorts, so learn it now for Vergil's sake, even if the 4th year Latin Vergil course hasn't been given since l976. But if you get somehow up the ladder to Vergil, you will be faced with an elaborate process called "Scansion of Latin Verse". In this system you write in the longs over your text, marking out the Fingers (dactyls are Greek for finger, two short bones and one long, e.g. - u u) and Feet with a slash. Why "fingers" with "feet" you ask curiously, an oxymoron for English speakers? Well, the French call toes "doigts de pied" or 'fingers of the feet', so maybe the fact that French comes as a Romanic language from Latin enters somehow into this equation.

Writing out or "scanning" a line of poetry is not only tedious, it marks up your text so completely with erasures and corrections that you will never be able to read it at all. Did the Romans do it this way with their squid-ink pens on parchment manuscripts, or was it easier on wax tablets with a chopstick, so long as you weren't out in the sun on a hot day?

Longs and shorts line up behind another set of rules, which say that a vowel is long by "position" before two consonants, or by it own very nature, which means something like genetically long. You could do it the other way round and define shorts as not standing before two consonants or being long by its own personal nature, but that wouldn't clarify the situation much.

But this is just the beginning, there are "exceptions" galore, so these rules are no more watertight than the Laws of Physics before Einstein. "Scansion" might be the "ether" of l9th c. physics, the linguistic binding glue which keeps things in order. But neither really do exist although if you search hard enough, you can see them floating in the limbo of obsolete notions.

How did we get our knowledge of these macron-capped "longs" in the first place. It was a Dutch doctor in the 16th century who made up a dictionary of Latin, in which each word was followed by a line of impeccable Latin poetry written by a Classical master. From this reading of this line Smets could infer the length of the vowel in the word he was documenting, and it is from this and later studies of this kind that we get our knowledge of the Latin vowel lengths. There are a few statements from the old Roman grammarians about vowel-length, but these are usually in cases where there was doubt even to the native Romans.

Coming to the point:

The Romans spoke one way, using the "three from end" system, wrote their poetry differently with the "long-short" system, rather slavishly following the Greeks. How did they manage in such a fix to makes sense out of their poetry at all?

They used the ancient art of linguistic confectionery: They fudged!

How this was done is still not completely clear, but they read their Vergil with proper respect for the longs and shorts, yet at the same time they knew that the Master had written the lines so they could be (sort of) heard as lightly accented in the manner of daily speech, so as to be understood. Strange to say, this ungainly balance between two dissonant systems of speech has a subtle charm of its own, once you are some dozen or more years into the study of Latin. But for the beginner trying to make sense, it sound more like a weight-lifter doing his act on a tightrope. Yet nothing in this world is completely impossible!

You open the Oxford edition of Vergil, and lo --- where are the long marks now? Well, they are never used in "normal" Latin printed books, only in the school texts where not knowing them can cost you marks in the teacher's black book. This may reinforce your suspicion that they were only there in the first place to make things harder. But that isn't really true, you can safely ignore the macrons since your teacher may not be completely sure about them anyway. Watch your teacher, when THEY(the New English term replacing "he/she") look down at the book when questioned about a vowel length, you know THEY are cribbing HIS/HER answer.

In India they still do it the old way according to Panini, the great grammarian of the 4th A.D. The students memorize hundreds of rules first, then when they read something in Sanskrit (the parallel to Latin here) they can cite the rule for each function of every word. This seems unthinkable to Americans, where memorizing the dates of our mere two centuries of history is virtually forbidden as harming the mind, damping the imagination. The fact is that Indians learning almost everything by rote, the Chinese memorizing thousands of characters just be able to read a newspaper.......are surviving and even becoming mathematicians, scientists and businessmen in our country if they can get in. This does offer up some questions beside our rising figures for functional American illiteracy. Ah well, who wants to read when you can get everything on TV?

Say you are really serious about Latin, and have a good mind for detail, you might think it worthwhile to go to the basic authority on Latin Grammar, Allen And Greenough's LATIN GRAMMAR edited by d'Ooge in l906, still regarded by professionals as the best exposition of the subject. Problem is this book has been out of print for decades, and most copies are on the upper shelf of a college professor who doesn't have time to read it much anyway. I was talking to my lawyer last week, and asked about the shelves and shelves of law books in his office, asking if he had read a lot of them in the course of the years. "Of course not, they are there for reference........ I use them as little as possible, takes too much time, and only when I get in trouble." Same for Allen and Greenough, I suspect.

The point? Reading Vergil you learn to get a feel for the sound of a line of his verse, by listening to someone who seems to read it with feeling, and then experiment on your own. When you feel comfortable reading it and it sounds "genuine", you are home free without a thought about scansion or marks over the vowels or even longs vs. shorts, which can now be relegated to the matter of summer clothing.

But there is always that nagging question behind any discussion like this: Why am I taking Latin, what in the world is it going to be good for? If I really do well and get a high AP grade for college credit, is that enough reason for four years intensive training in a dead tongue which points to a dead end?

Now at last I can give you a clear answer in a very few words. You will probably never get a true reading knowledge of Latin, an achievement many teachers haven't reached after long years. You may not be interested in poetry at all, in fact there are many readers who conscientiously avoid poetry as airy and un-factual. But you have mastered a complex and meaningless system in all its myriad detail, you have done your years of Latin with serious study, never asking what it is good for or why you are doing it at all.

What is this good for? Why it is the best training in the world for another system which has all the same characteristics of meaningless oddities, a high degree of complexity, lack of overall organization, and a shifting ground on which it is based which nobody can exactly define.

What am I speaking of? Why, of course, it is The Law ! Latin is the preview for Law School, and most of our successful lawyers have at an earlier stage been Latinists, probably recalcitrant or unwilling at best. But the path less often taken is in this case the highway to financial and social success, and Latin is a good anticipation for the rigors of mastering and practicing the Law.

Sorry to have lost my thread, I was just going to say a few words about Latin at the beginning, wasn't I?

Well, it seems I wasn't paying attention and the fire went out while I was at the computer with this letter, so I think I'll just go out and split some kindling for the wood stove. Like Latin, we do one thing for the sake of another, and a little work with the maul will be good for the circulation, and the kindling will be good for lighting the logs, and the logs will be right for the fire in the stove, and soon the room will be getting warm, and it will be time for lunch, and then I'll think about taking a nap for a while and forget about all this letter, which by that time will be on the Internet reaching its tentacles out to the world with my important message of the morning........... Now what was it I was going to say?.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College