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Pronunciation of Latin

Three methods of pronouncing Latin are in use in this country at the present time, described respectively as the English method, the Continental method, and the Roman or Phonetic method.

I. The English Method

In general, pronounces Latin words as though they were English. The tendency of this system is frequently to obscure the vowel sounds. Thus, before r final, or followed by another consonant, e, i, and u are scarcely distinguishable from one another. Between qu and rt, a receives a sound like o—e. g. in quartus. The quantities of unaccented syllables are not carefully rendered. The diphthongs œ and œ are sounded like ē in be; au, as in author; eu, as in neuter; ui, like ī in like—e. g. cui, huic, etc. C and g are pronounced soft (like English s and j) before e, i, y, ae, or oe. Ch is hard, like k; c, s, and t, in such words as socius, militia, Alsium, anxius, receive the sound of sh. G and m are silent before n (e. g. Gnaeus, Mnemon); ch and ph before a mute (e. g. Chthonia, Phthia); p before s or t (e. g. Psyche, Ptolemaeus); and t before m (e. g. Tmolus).

The English method is falling into desuetude in this country, and will probably soon be wholly obsolete. In England, the leading Latinists have long since repudiated it in theory, but the conservatism of the schools clings to it as being the old historic usage of English scholarship; whereas it is nothing of the kind, but a comparatively modern innovation, as shown below.

II. The Continental Method

The Continental Method gives to the consonants in general the same sounds as in the English method, and to the vowels the following sounds: a, as in father; e, like a in make; i, as in machine; o, as in go; u, like oo in moo; y, like e in me; ae and oe, like a in make; au, like ou in out. The tendency of this method also is to neglect difference of quantity in unaccented syllables.

The name “Continental Method” is rather a misnomer, as there is on the continent of Europe no uniform system, the scholars of each nation pronouncing the consonants as in their own language. Thus, a German pronouncing Cicero, says Tsitsĕro; an Italian, Chichĕro; a Frenchman, Sisĕro; a Spaniard, Thithĕro, and so on. Yet the practical identity of the vowel-sounds in all the chief continental languages and the fact that only a few of the consonants vary in pronunciation, make the so-called Continental System, as used in this country, one that is easily intelligible to any Continental Latinist. It is used by the Catholic clergy and in a number of colleges, and is substantially the system that has always prevailed at the Scotch universities.

III. The Roman or Phonetic Method

The Roman or Phonetic Method aims to reproduce, so far as our present knowledge makes such a thing possible, the pronunciation used by the Romans themselves in the classical period. It distinguishes very carefully between long and short vowels, even in syllables where the natural vocalic quantities are obscured by their position before two consonants.

ā, as in father; ă, as in Cuba.

ē, as in they; ĕ, like a in Senate.

ī, as in machine; ĭ, as in pin.

ō, as in note; ŏ, as in obey.

ū, like oo in moo; ŭ, like oo in hood.

ae=ah-ee quickly spoken.

au, like ou in out.

ei, as in eight.

oe=oh-ee quickly spoken.

ui, like wee in sweet (nearly).

eu, as in feud (nearly).

ȳ, like German ü; y, the same sound short.

The pronunciation of the consonants is as follows:

b=b in English; before s or t=p.

c=k (always).

ch, as in German.

d=d in English; at the end of words nearly=t.

f=f in English.

g=g in get (always hard).

h=h in English.

j i-consonant)=y in English.

l=l in English.

m=m in English.

n=n in English; but before c, q, g, or x=ng in linger.

p=p in English.

q=q in English. (It is always, in Latin, followed by u.

r=r in English with a slight trill.

s=s in sit.

t=t in English, and never assibilated.

v u-consonant)=w in English.

x=x in English.

z=z in English.

Our knowledge of how the Romans pronounced their own language is derived from several sources: (a) from the statements of the Roman writers themselves, especially of the grammarians; (b) from the orthography of the language, which was, in the main, phonetic (Quint. i. 7, 11); (c) from the way in which the Greeks represented Roman sounds in Greek characters—spelling by ear; (d) from a comparison of all the modern languages derived from the Latin with reference to the points which they possess in common; (e) from the spelling of the Latin words taken into German, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon at an early period; (f) from the traditions of scholars as set forth in the treatises of Erasmus, Lipsius, and others, as cited below; (g) from the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which has employed Latin in its rites from the first century to the present time; (h) from the general principles of the science of phonology. These sources were very carefully investigated, and the results they yield were correlated by Dr. Wilhelm Corssen (q.v.) in his great work, Ueber Aussprache, Vokalismus, und Betonung der lateinischen Sprache, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1858-59; 2d ed. 1868-70), since the appearance of which the ancient system of pronunciation has made steady progress in gaining the acceptance of scholars all over the world. In 1859, Professor J. F. Richardson, of the University of Rochester, put forth an excellent little volume advocating the true method; and in 1872, Professors Munro and Palmer in England, at the request of the head-masters of the public schools, prepared and published a condensed statement of the Roman system, entitled A Syllabus of Latin Pronunciation (Oxford and Cambridge, 1872), which received the approval of the two great universities and of all the leading Latinists of England. The Roman system has now practically supplanted the other two in the leading schools, colleges, and universities of the United States. This is not due to the greater willingness of Americans to accept what is new, but to practical considerations that will readily occur to any one. In the United States, the inconveniences of having no standard system have been very great. New England, being wholly settled from Old England, long continued the English system of pronouncing Latin. In the Middle States, the Germans and Dutch introduced their own methods; in the South and West, the French pronunciation came in quite frequently; and all over the Union, the Catholic clergy in their schools and colleges have propagated the traditional usage of their Church. Hence, a Babel of pronunciations and systems existing and practised side by side in a picturesque confusion such as no European country ever knew; and hence the general willingness to accept a single method, especially one that is based upon historic truth.

The advantages of the Roman system, briefly stated, are these: (a) It is approximately the system used by the Romans themselves. (b) It is more musical and harmonious in sound, and makes the structure of Latin verse clear even to the beginner. (c) It is simpler than the English system, giving as it does but one sound to each alphabetical character, and thus always distinguishing words of different orthography and meaning by their sounds, while the English system often confuses them—e. g. census and sensus; caedo, cedo, and sedo; circulus and surculus; cervus and servus; amici and amisi. (d) It makes the connection of Latin words with their Greek cognates plain at once, and renders easier the study of Greek, of the modern Romance languages, and of the science of Comparative Philology.

Advocates of other systems have made their chief assault upon the Roman method because of its dictum regarding the pronunciation of c and v. They say that Latin c must have had a modified sound before e and i, because every modern language derived from the Latin has so modified it.

But it must be remembered that the modern Romance languages are the children, not of the classical Latin spoken in the days of Cicero, but of the provincial Latin spoken five or six centuries later. There is no doubt that at this late period Latin c had become modified before e or i so as to be equivalent to s or z. Latin words received into German at this time represent c before e or i by z. But had this modification been a part of the usage of the classical language, it would have been noticed by the grammarians, who discuss each letter with great minuteness. Now, no grammarian ever mentions more than one sound for Latin c. Again, if Latin c had ever had the sound of s, surely some of the Greeks, ignorant of Latin and spelling by ear, would at least occasionally have represented Latin c by ς—a thing which none of them has ever done, always using κ. It is probable that the modification of c which is noticed in the modern languages was a characteristic of the Umbrian and Oscan dialects (the Umbrian had a special character to denote the modified sound), and so prevailed to some extent in the provinces; but there is absolutely not the slightest evidence to show that it formed a part of the pronunciation of cultivated men at Rome. On the other hand, words taken into Gothic and Old High German from the Latin at an early period invariably represent Latin c by k: thus, Latin carcer gives the Gothic karkara and the German Kerker; Latin Caesar gives the German Kaiser; Latin lucerna gives the Gothic lukarn; the Latin cellarium gives the German Keller; the Latin cerasus gives the German Kirsche. Also in late Hebrew, Latin c is regularly represented in transliteration by the hard consonant kôph. In Latin inscriptions, also, c alternates with k, showing it to have had the same sound. Thus we find Caelius and Kaelius, Cerus and Kerus, decembres and dekembres. (See, also, Quint.i. 7, 10).

As to v, the Greeks transliterated it by ou, writing Οὐαλήριος for Valerius, Οὐόλσκοι for Volsci, etc., while it passes easily into u in such forms as cautum for cavitum, fautor for favitor, etc.

“It is not always remembered that only very gradually was the true pronunciation of Latin lost in Europe. Scholars long retained the essential features of it, and by the fact of their constant intercourse long prevented the growth of local and national variations from the established method. Great teachers like Erasmus passed from country to country, lecturing in Latin at the universities of Italy, Germany, Holland, France, and England; teaching pupils of all nationalities, and being everywhere understood without any difficulty, for Latin was the lingua franca of the educated, and one general pronunciation of it prevailed. Even in England, it was only after that country's isolation, political and religious, in the sixteenth century, that an ‘English pronunciation’ arose, and this was long protested against—e. g. by Cardinal Wolsey, by Milton, and as late as the last century by Ainsworth (1746) and Philipps (1750). For the Continental traditions, see Justus Lipsius in his Dialogus de Recta Pronunciatione Linguae Latinae; and Erasmus, De Recta Latini Graecique Sermonis Pronunciatione (Basle, 1528). In Scotland, the Continental sound of the vowels was long retained, on which see the incident imagined by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Fortunes of Nigel, ch. ix.” (Peck).


Besides the works already cited, reference may be made to the following: Haldeman, Elements of Latin Pronunciation (Philadelphia, 1851); Tafel, Latin Pronunciation (N. Y. 1860); Blair, Latin Pronunciation (N. Y. 1874); Ellis, The Quantitative Pronunciation of Latin (London, 1874); King, Latin Pronunciation (N. Y. and Boston, 1880); Edon, Écriture et Prononciation du Latin (Paris, 1882); Seelmann, Die Aussprache des Latein (Heilbronn, 1885); and H. T. Peck, Latin Pronunciation: a Short Exposition of the Roman Method (2d ed. N. Y. 1894). See, also, articles by Prof. Max Müller and Mr. Munro in the Academy for Feb. 15, 1871; Dec. 15, 1871; Jan. 11, 1872; and by Prof. J. C. Jones in Classical Review for February, 1893; and Lindsay, The Latin Language (Oxford, 1894).

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