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Slightly Geeky Guide to

Pronouncing Latin

Without Knowing Any Latin

(Generally More Than You Actually Need To Know)

Overview

The Absolute Minimum to Remember:
There are three different sets of rules.
They mostly affect C, AE, and I.
CH is pronounced like English K.

Most people don't speak Latin these days except to import a word or phrase into another language. So in some sense it doesn't make much difference how you pronounce it. Still, various college courses keep getting mixed up with Latin, and it may be comforting to know what is going on with it. Learn this once, and you can impress people (or at least yourself) for the rest of your life.

In Roman times there were, of course, dialects, foreign accents, and so on just as there are in modern languages. And when Latin borrowed words from other languages (usually Greek) Romans sometimes had differing conventions for spelling and pronouncing them.

In general three standards of pronunciation are of concern to us today.

  1. Latin in English, i.e. Latin words and phrases (like "et cetera") used in English (with slight variations between British and American usage)
  2. Church Latin, whether used in a Latin mass, or in choral music, or as phrases borrowed from these sources into English (like "Te Deum")
  3. School Latin, i.e., reconstructed Roman Latin (taught in college Latin courses and probably close to what was spoken on a good day by an elite Roman afflicted by a slight speech impediment)

The Evolution of Ancient Latin

Early Latin made a distinction between long and short vowels, which is shown today in most Latin textbooks by marking the long vowels (cēna = dinner, vs. cēnā = at dinner). By classical times the vowel-length distinction was being lost. As the empire assimilated more and more speakers for whom Latin was a second language, distinctions of vowel length were lost entirely in most areas.

The loss of the long/short vowel distinction resulted in some formerly different word endings coming to sound alike, which forced writers to depend more and more on prepositions and word order to make their meaning clear. This process is a central feature of the evolution of Latin into the modern Romance languages (French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, &c.)

Most Latin words you see outside of textbooks will not have vowel length marked. Since stress was partly a function of vowel length, some church texts mark stress in ambiguous cases with an arbitrary diacritic to facilitate use in liturgies (céterus or cêterus rather than just ceterus) and an occasional book will mark a vowel as long if it makes a difference to the meaning (cenâ = at dinner).

Since stress is usually not marked, however, you may hear Latin words stressed differently by different speakers. For example, the emperor Septimius Severus may have his second name pronounced Séverus by one expert and Sevérus by another. (The second is technically correct.)

So here are some "rules" that generally won't lead you too far astray.

Stress

If there are two syllables, stress the first one (céna).

If there are more syllables, the one second from the last —called the "penult," as in "penultimate"— gets the stress if has a long vowel, and the one before it (the "antepenult") gets the stress if the penult has a short vowel (Septímĭus Sevḗrus). Since you probably won't know whether the penult has a long or short vowel, you have to take your chances (Sevḗrus or Sévĕrus).

The coward's way out is to speak very softly and hope a lot. Another approach is to do whatever sounds best in English. After all, that's the language you are speaking!

Vowels

Consonants

Most consonants can be pronounced like their English equivalents. Here a couple of marginally trickier ones.

Now you know.


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