previous next

THE letter h (or perhaps it should be called a breathing rather than a letter) was added by our forefathers to give strength and vigour to the pronunciation of many words, in order that they might have a fresher and livelier sound; and this they seem to have done from their devotion to the Attic language, and under its influence. It is well known that the people of Attica, contrary to the usage of the other Greek races, pronounced ἱχθύς (fish), ἵππος (horse), and many other words besides, with a rough breathing on the first letter. 1 In the same way our ancestors said lachrumae (tears), sepulchrum (burial-place), ahenum (of bronze), vehemens (violent), incohare (begin), helluari (gormandize), hallucinari (dream), honera (burdens), honustum (burdened). For in all these words there seems to be no reason for that letter, or breathing, except to increase the force and vigour of the sound by adding certain sinews, so to speak.

But apropos of the inclusion of ahenum among my examples, I recall that Fidus Optatus, a grammarian of considerable repute in Rome, showed me a remarkably old copy of the second book of the Aeneid, bought in the Sigillaria 2 for twenty pieces of gold, which was believed to have belonged to [p. 131] Virgil himself. In that book, although the following two lines were written thus: 3

Before the entrance-court, hard by the gate,
With sheen of brazen (aena) arms proud Pyrrhus gleams,
we observed that the letter h had been added above the line, changing aena to ahena. So too in the best manuscripts we find this verse of Virgil's written as follows: 4
Or skims with leaves the bubbling brass's (aleni) wave.

1 I find no authority for this. Brugmann in Müller's Handbuch, II, 61 (end) cites ἵππος as a word which originally had a smooth breathing and acquired the rough from the combination ἴππος. Since the ι in ἰχθύς is prosthetic, ἱχθύς, if it existed must have had the same origin, but Brugmann does not cite it. See also Indoger. Forsch. xxii, p. 197 (gives some additional information).

2 A street or quarter in Rome where the little images were sold which were given as presents at the festival of the Sigillaria; this was on Dec. 21 and 22, an extension of the Saturnalia, although not a religious holiday. The aureus was the standard gold coin of the Romans, of the value of 100 sesterces; its weight varied at different periods.

3 ii. 469 f.

4 Georg. i. 296.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
load focus Latin (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: