Latin spelling and pronunciation

From Academic Kids

The Roman alphabet is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet to represent the phonemes of the Latin language. The Greeks, in turn, had taken their alphabet from the Phoenicians. This article deals with modern scholarship's best guess at Classical Latin pronunciation (that is, how Latin was spoken among educated people in the late Republic), and then touches upon other variants.


List of letters and phonemes

Template:IPA notice Since in classical times each letter of the alphabet corresponded very closely with a phoneme, here is each letter (and digraph) in order, with the phoneme it represents, given in IPA):

A /a/ (as in father, but shorter)

A (as in father)

B /b/ (as in bone)

C /k/ (as in skate)

CH (as in cake — aspirated /k/) used in Greek loanwords to represent the letter Chi (Χχ). Not a native Latin phoneme, so it tended to be pronounced /k/.

D /d/ (as in dog)

E /e/ (as in bet)

E (as in French t or German Beethoven, but longer)

F /f/ (as in French)

G (as in good). It was pronounced (as in sing) before an "N", e.g. agnus .

H /h/ (as in happy) this sound was very weakly articulated, and quickly became silent in Vulgar Latin.

I /i/ (as in English pit)

I (as in English seed)

I /j/ (as in English yes), see below (1)

K /k/ used in a very small number of native Latin words, and is pronounced like C.

L /l/ (as in lamb)

M /m/ (as in man), see below (2)

N /n/ (as in never). Before "C", "G", or "Q", the "N" was pronounced (as in sing), e.g. quinque .

O /o/ (as in pot, but shorter)

O (as in French eau but longer)

P /p/ (as in spit)

PH (as in pit - aspirated /p/) used in Greek loanwords to represent Phi (Φφ). Not a native Latin phoneme, so it tended to be confused with /p/.

QV (somewhat similar to quark, but more accurately a labialized velar stop)

R /r/ (pronounced [r], a rolled sound like in Italian, or in the Spanish double RR; or maybe , with a tap of the tongue against the upper gums, like the Spanish "R")

S /s/ (as in still)

T /t/ (as in stay)

TH (as in tin - aspirated /t/) used in Greek loanwords to represent Theta (Θ θ). Not a native Latin phoneme, so it tended to be confused with /t/.

V /u/ (as in foot)

V /uː/ (as in food)

V /w/ (as in win) when short and unstressed before another vowel.

X /ks/ (as in box).

Y /y/ (as in French tu or German bermensch) used in Greek loanwords to represent Upsilon or Ypsilon (ϒυ) Not a native Latin phoneme, so it tended to be confused with /i/ or /u/.

Z /dz/ (as in suds) used in Greek loanwords; eventually reduced to /z/.

AE, OE, AV, EI, EV were pronounced as diphthongs, each of the vowels retaining its pronunciation: AE was /ae/, AV /au/, and so on.

Latin orthography did not distinguish between long and short vowels. For the modern use of macrons (āēīōū) to mark long vowels, see below. Consonants written double were so pronounced (BB /bb/, CC /kk/ etc.). For example anus /'anus/ (old woman) or ānus /'a:nus/ (ring, anus) vs. annus /'annus/ (year).

(1) The /j/ sound appears in the beginning of the words before a vowel or in the middle of the words between two vowels; in the latter case the sound is doubled: iūs /ju:s/, cūius /'ku:jjus/. The compound words preserve the /j/ sound of the element that begins with it: adiectīuum /adjek'ti:wum/.

(2) Metrical features of Latin poetry would suggest that, by the Classical period, the letter M at the end of a word was pronounced weakly, devoiced, or indeed by simply nasalising the preceding vowel. If it was indeed silent, this would entail the existence of another 12 potential nasal phonemes. For simplicity, and because this is not known for certain, M is just treated as the consonant /m/ here and in other references.

Summary of phonemes

  • Native Latin:
    • 5 vowels, each with both a short and a long version:
      • short: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/
      • long: /a:/, /e:/, /i:/, /o:/, /u:/
    • 5 diphthongs: /ae/, /oe/, /au/, /ei/, /eu/
    • 15 consonants: /b/, /k/, /d/, /f/, /g/, , /h/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /p/, , /r/, /s/, /t/
    • 2 semi-consonants: /j/, /w/
  • Imported from Greek:
    • 4 consonants: , , , /dz/
    • 2 vowels: /y/, /y:/

Length of vowels

Length of vowels was more significant and more clearly defined in Latin than in modern English. There was a difference in quality between long and short vowels (except a) in that short vowels were more open than long vowels ( vs. ), but this was less important than the differences in quantity. Quantity in English is partly determined by the context, for instance the ee in feed is for most speakers noticeably longer than in feet, but this seems not to have been the case in Latin. In reading classical Latin, especially verse, it is important to give long vowels their full length.

Distinctions of length became less important in later Latin, and have ceased to be phonemic in the modern Romance languages, where the previous long and short versions of the vowels are represented by differences in quality alone, except for a where the distinction has disappeared.

Syllables and stress

In Latin the distinction between heavy and light syllables is important as it determines where the main stress of a word falls, and is the key element in classical Latin versification. A heavy syllable (sometimes called a long syllable, but this risks confusion with long vowels) is a syllable that either contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in a consonant. If a single consonant occurs between two syllables within a word, it is considered to belong to the following syllable, so the syllable before the consonant is light if it contains a short vowel. If two or more consonants (or a geminated consonant) occur between syllables within a word, the first of the consonants goes with the first syllable, making it heavy. Certain combinations of consonants, e.g tr, are exceptions: both consonants go with the second syllable.

In Latin words of two syllables, the stress is on the first syllable. In words of three or more syllables, the stress is on the penultimate syllable if this is heavy, otherwise on the antepenultimate syllable.


Latin has a small number of inconsistencies between its letters and the phonemes they represent.

  • Each vowel letter (A, E, I, O, V, Y) represents at least two phonemes. A can represent either short /a/ or long /a:/; E is either /e/ or /e:/; I is either /i/, /i:/ or /j/; O is either /o/ or /o:/, U is either /u/, /u:/ or /w/, and Y is either /y/ or /y:/. (The colon in the transcription indicates a lengthened vowel sound.)
  • V and I indicate semi-consonants (/w/ and /j/) in certain contexts. An attempt by the emperor Claudius to introduce a separate letter for consonantal V was unsuccessful (see Claudian letters).
  • C, K and Q all represent /k/. However, K is used in only a very small number of words and abbreviations, and Q has its justification in clarifying minimal pairs. That is to say: since it is always followed by a V pronounced /w/, it makes it possible to distinguish between disyllabic cui /'kui/ and monosyllabic qui .
  • X is completely unnecessary as CS could have been used to indicate /ks/.
  • The semi-consonant /j/ is regularly geminated between two vowels, but this is not indicated in the spelling. Before a vocalic I the semi-consonant is often omitted altogether, for instance /'re:jjikit/ 'he/she threw back' is spelt reicit rather than reiicit.

Modern spelling conventions

Modern usage, even when printing classical Latin texts, varies in respect of I and V. Many publishers continue the convention of using I for both /i/ and /j/ and V for both /u/ and /w/. However u is by convention used as the [lower-case] equivalent of V as both vowel and semi-consonant (the ancient Romans did not have lower-case as we know it).

An alternative approach, less common today, is to use I,i and U,u for the vowels, and J,j and V,v for the semi-consonants.

Many books adopt an intermediate position, distinguishing between U and V but not between I and J. Usually the semi-consonant V after Q or S is still printed as u rather than v, probably because in this position it did not change from /w/ to /v/ in post-classical times. This approach is also recommended in the help page for the Latin Wikipedia.

Textbooks and dictionaries indicate the quantity of vowels by putting a macron or horizontal bar above the long vowel, but this is not generally done in printed texts. Occasionally in inscriptions one may see a circumflex used to indicate a long vowel where this makes a difference to the sense, for instance Rom /'ro:ma:/ 'from Rome' (ablative) compared to Roma /'ro:ma/ 'Rome' (nominative). Sometimes, for instance in Roman Catholic service books, an acute accent over a vowel is used to indicate the stressed syllable, but this is redundant if one knows the classical rules of accentuation, and also makes the correct distinction between long and short vowels.

Latin pronunciation today

Pronouncing a dead language

Being a "dead" language, when Latin words are spoken in a "living" language today, there is ordinarily little or no attempt to pronounce them as the Romans did. Myriad systems have arisen for pronouncing the language — at least one for each language in the modern world whose speakers learn Latin. In most cases, Latin pronunciation is adapted to the phonology of the person's own language, although obviously this means that people are not pronouncing Latin the way it was pronounced by Romans.

Latin words in common use in English are fully assimilated into the English sound system, with little to mark them as foreign (indeed, people do not generally even think of Latin words as being foreign), e.g. cranium, saliva. Other words have a stronger Latin feel to them, usually because of spelling features such as the diphthongs ae and oe (occasionally written and œ) which are both pronounced /i:/ in English. In the Oxford style, ae is pronounced //, in "formulae" for example. Ae in some words tends to be given an // pronunciation, e.g. curriculum vitae.

French, Spanish, German, etc. all have their own corruptions of the Latin phonological system, often even taught at school during Latin classes, sometimes without saying they were not the correct pronunciation. This is especially true of Italians, who learn Latin as it was pronounced during the low Middle Age in Italy by the intellectual class, a pronunciation similar to the modern Italian one. Below are the main points that distinguish Italian Latin pronunciation from Classical Latin pronunciation.

  • Vowel length is lost: vowels are long when stressed and in an open syllable, otherwise short.
  • C is pronounced // (an English "ch" sound) before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
  • The diphthongs AE and OE are pronounced /e/.
  • G is pronounced // (an English "j" sound) before AE, OE, E, I or Y
  • H is silent.
  • S may become /z/ between vowels.
  • TI, if followed by a vowel and not preceded by s, t, x, becomes /tsj/.
  • V remains /u/ as a vowel, but the semi-consonant /w/ becomes /v/, except after Q.
  • TH becomes /t/.
  • PH becomes /f/.
  • CH becomes /k/.
  • Y becomes /i/.

This "Latin with an Italian accent" was adopted by the Catholic church, notably by the monks of Solesmes Abbey for their Gregorian chant, and is known as ecclesiastical Latin. Ecclesiastical Latin greatly influenced English pronunciation of Latin, with many English speakers making // sounds when quoting Romans (e.g. Veni, uidi, uici.) or singing in choir or other musical performances, even though they pronounce C as /s/ in Latin words they use in English (e.g. Caesar). Another example is the recent The Passion of the Christ film, recorded in Aramaic and very ecclesiastical Latin. However, some musicians try to produce authentic regional pronunciation as far as possible.

The sons and daughters of Latin

Because it gave rise to many modern languages, Latin never actually died: it was merely changed through centuries of use and from this was born the great diversity of the Romance languages. The end of the political unity of the western Roman Empire accelerated the process, sending western Europe into an economic depression and curtailing the mobility of the population, making it less likely for a proto-Romance speaker to need to speak to someone from a distant locality, and encouraging the divergence of local dialects. Moreover, written Latin, like written English, was always to some degree an artificial literary language, somewhat different in grammar, syntax, and lexicon from the vernacular. Today's differences can be quite striking. Indeed, some have dubbed Castilian the son of Latin, and Portuguese and French the daughters of Latin, due to the alleged masculine and feminine sound of them, respectively.

Even in Classical times, we know that the people in the street did not speak the formal, Classical tongue. They spoke what is known as Vulgar Latin, which was already very different from its sibling, mainly because of simplifications in its grammar and phonology. It is this Vulgar Latin that became modern French, Italian, etc.

Key features of Vulgar Latin and Romance include:

  • Total loss of /h/ and final /m/.
  • Pronunciation of /ae/ and /oe/ as /e/.
  • Conversion of the distinction of vowel length into a distinction of timbre, and subsequent merger of some of these phonemes.
  • Total loss of Greek sounds (which were never really part of the language anyway).
  • Palatalization of /k/ before /e/ and /i/, probably first into /kj/, then /tj/, then /tsj/ before finally developing into /ts/ in loanwords into languages like German, // in Florentine, /θ/ in Castilian and /s/ in French and Catalan.
  • Palatalization of /g/ before /e/ and /i/, and of /j/, into //.
  • Palatalization of /ti/ followed by vowel, if not preceded by s, t, x, into /tsj/.
  • The change of /w/ (except after /k/) and sometimes /b/ into , then /v/ (but for example in Spain the sound was retained).

and many other aspects of pronunciation, not to mention grammar and vocabulary.

For further details, please refer to the relevant articles below:

Latin language
Romance languages
French language (langue d'oil and langue d'oc)
Spanish language (Castilian)
Catalan language (including Valencian and Balearic)
Portuguese language (including Galician)
Italian language (Florentine)
Romanian language (despite Slavic influence)

See also



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