Latin/Accents and Scansion

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All latin syllables are either long or short and stressed or unstressed. The metre of Latin poetry, unlike English poetry, is dependent on the length of the syllables rather than their accent.

Length[edit]

The two different lengths for syllables are long (indicated by a macron ˉ ) and short (indicated by a breve ˇ ). All syllables are either one or the other. A syllable’s length is determined by both its nature and its position. If a syllable is long by nature that means that the vowel sound is long and pronounced differently to its short counterpart. For example:


ā is pronounced as in cart
ă is pronounced as in cut


On the other hand, if a syllable is long by position, the consonants around the vowel sound determine the syllables length, rather than the syllable itself. If a vowel is followed by two consonants, then the syllable will be long irrespective of the nature of the vowel.


The following line is from Poem 1 by Catullus in hendecasyllables.

cuī dōnō lĕpĭdūm nŏvūm lĭbēllŭm


The long syllable at the end of novum is caused by the two consonants (m and l) following it whereas the long syllable at the end of dono has to be long by nature as there is only one consonant following it.

Stress[edit]

As well as long and short syllables Latin also has a stress accent, like English. This is where the natural emphasis goes when speaking. The stress accent is determined by the length of the syllables but not the same as it. Unlike English there are fairly consistent rules to work out where the stress accent is placed in Latin words.

1) For words of two syllables, the accent always goes on the second last syllable.
2) For words of more than two syllables where the second last syllable is long, the accent goes on the second last syllable.
3) For words of more than two syllables where the second last syllable is short, the accent goes on the third last syllable.


These rules are demonstrated in the following words taken from the extract above:


1) vūm
2) lĭllŭm
3) pĭdūm


Poetic Meter[edit]

As mentioned, Latin poetry depends on the length of syllables rather than their stress accent. A line of Latin verse is divided into feet depending on the pattern of long and short syllables. The pattern of feet then determines the meter. In some poetic meters, such as dactyllic hexameter, there is also a main caesura in every line written as (˄). This is caused when there is a break in words in the middle of a foot.