The Latin Language/Pronunciation

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If you wish to delve deeply into the subject of Latin pronunciation, see Wikipedia.

Explicit secunda pars summe fratris thome de aquino ordinis fratrum predicatorum, longissima, prolixissima, et tediosissima scribenti: Deo gratias, Deo gratias, et iterum Deo gratias.

Here ends the second part of the Summa of brother Thomas Aquinas of the Order of Preaching Friars, the longest, wordiest, and most tedious thing ever written: thank God, thank God, and again thank God.[1]

How to pronounce Latin: two major dialects[edit]

In general, there are two ways to pronounce Latin. These are:

  • Classical Latin, spoken roughly between 25 BC and 200 AD,
  • Ecclesiastical or Medieval Latin (sometimes called Roman Latin), spoken roughly from 900 AD onwards.

Classical Latin has the advantage of being phonetic: a letter always sounds the same no matter the context. Ecclesiastical Latin has some contextual variations. Ecclesiastical pronunciation has been altered from Classical both by the regional languages that people in the former Roman Empire spoke, and by normal linguistic evolution. Also, Ecclesiastical Latin is the official Latin of the Catholic Church.

Warning: In the following tables, the "Sounds like" column presents an English word that contains the sound we are trying to demonstrate. However, due to the immense number of regional variations of English, it is not likely that the sound you make when pronouncing the word will match the sound anyone else makes. Also, we don't expect you to be familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, so we will not use that notation. Instead, we will provide one or more audio samples demonstrating the sound.

Vowels[edit]

There are two types of vowels in Latin: long and short. Forget everything you know about English long and short vowels. Long and short for Latin vowels simply means the length of time that the vowel is held for. A long Latin vowel is indicated by a macron, which is a line over the vowel, as in these: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ. Some books (and Vicipaedia) use an accent mark, as in á, é, í, ó, ú, ý. These marks were typically not written in Latin, but they are in this book as an aid to pronunciation. When you read actual Latin, you will find that they are only written when there would be confusion between words if the mark were not there.

As stated above, long and short indicate the amount of time the vowel is held for, but the length does not affect the sound of the vowel. Currently it is the English and American tradition that long and short vowels have different sounds as well, however scholars (especially those in Europe) are slowly moving towards the conclusion that vowel quality did not change with length.[2] Thus, in most English and American books you will find a table that looks different from this one.

Vowel Latin example Classical[3] Ecclesiastical[4]
Sounds like Listen Sounds like Listen
a ballista father About this sound listen father About this sound listen 
ā fābula About this sound listen About this sound listen
e September met About this sound listen met About this sound listen
ē mēnsis About this sound listen About this sound listen
i dictātor machine About this sound listen machine About this sound listen
ī dīvīsor About this sound listen About this sound listen
o bonus dog About this sound listen dog About this sound listen
ō sōl About this sound listen About this sound listen
u lupus rude About this sound listen rude About this sound listen
ū lūna About this sound listen About this sound listen
y mysticus über[5] About this sound listen meet About this sound listen
ȳ Dionȳsus About this sound listen About this sound listen
All the vowels About this sound listen About this sound listen

Practice[edit]

Choose your preferred pronunciation method: Classical or Ecclesiastical. Then attempt to pronounce the following words before listening to them. Don't worry about the correct pronunciation of the consonants or syllable stresses at this point; just pay attention to the vowels.

Word Classical Ecclesiastical
secundus About this sound listen About this sound listen
proximitās About this sound listen About this sound listen
perpendiculum About this sound listen About this sound listen
dīvīnitās About this sound listen About this sound listen
Hēraclītus About this sound listen About this sound listen
mīrāculum About this sound listen About this sound listen
amygdalum About this sound listen About this sound listen
ūmidus About this sound listen About this sound listen
pila About this sound listen About this sound listen
pīla About this sound listen About this sound listen
papȳrus About this sound listen About this sound listen
potēns About this sound listen About this sound listen
pōtus About this sound listen About this sound listen
locus About this sound listen About this sound listen
lōcustā About this sound listen About this sound listen

Diphthongs[edit]

Two vowels together usually are pronounced as distinct vowels. Thus, the word radiī is pronounced ra•di•ī. However, some combinations have a pronunciation in which the first vowel glides into the second vowel: they are diphthongs.

Diphthong Latin example Classical[6] Ecclesiastical[7]
Sounds like Listen Sounds like Listen
ae paenīnsula by About this sound listen Pronounce as ē About this sound listen
au automaton how About this sound listen how About this sound listen
eu[8] Eurōpa Pronounce as eū About this sound listen Pronounce as eū About this sound listen
oe oeconōmia foil About this sound listen Pronounce as ē About this sound listen
ua, ue, ui, uo after q or ng aequilībrium kw + vowel About this sound listen kw + vowel About this sound listen

There are a few exceptions, such as the word āēr, which you might see as aër in Vicipaedia or āër in other books. The marks indicate that the vowels are pronounced separately as ā•ēr, not as the diphthong ae. When we encounter other such words, we'll point them out, otherwise these tables would get very complicated very quickly.

Practice[edit]

Once again, attempt to pronounce the following words before listening to them. Don't worry about the correct pronunciation of the consonants or syllable stresses at this point; just pay attention to the vowels.

Word Classical Ecclesiastical
Februārius About this sound listen About this sound listen
cooperātor About this sound listen About this sound listen
aestuārium About this sound listen About this sound listen
praedictum About this sound listen About this sound listen
āëroplānum About this sound listen About this sound listen
nautilus About this sound listen About this sound listen
neuter About this sound listen About this sound listen
Euboea About this sound listen About this sound listen
strēnuitās About this sound listen About this sound listen
quiētūdo About this sound listen About this sound listen
rēliquiae About this sound listen About this sound listen

Consonants[edit]

Try to pronounce these words before listening to them.

Consonant Latin example Classical[9] Ecclesiastical[10]
Sounds like Listen Sounds like Listen
b barbaria bob About this sound listen bob About this sound listen
c followed by e, i, ae, oe, y caelestis cat About this sound listen chat About this sound listen
c otherwise cattus cat About this sound listen cat About this sound listen
d dīrēctus dad About this sound listen dad About this sound listen
f fānāticus fun About this sound listen fun About this sound listen
g followed by e, i, ae, oe, y genus gag About this sound listen gerbil About this sound listen
g otherwise gubernātor gag About this sound listen gag About this sound listen
h herba honey About this sound listen honor[11] About this sound listen
i at beginning of word, j[12] Jēsūs yes About this sound listen yes About this sound listen
k Kalendae keep About this sound listen keep About this sound listen
l littera loll About this sound listen loll About this sound listen
m maximus mom About this sound listen mom About this sound listen
n numerus nun About this sound listen nun About this sound listen
p populus pop About this sound listen pop About this sound listen
q quantum quiet About this sound listen quiet About this sound listen
r[13] religiō roar About this sound listen roar About this sound listen
s miser sassy About this sound listen sassy About this sound listen
t followed by i and another vowel and preceded by any letter other than s, t, x differentia tatter About this sound listen tsetse About this sound listen
t otherwise toga tatter About this sound listen tatter About this sound listen
v[14] vīvārium wow About this sound listen vine About this sound listen
x in words beginning with ex followed by a vowel, h, or s exhālō axe About this sound listen eggs About this sound listen
x otherwise extrā axe About this sound listen axe About this sound listen
z zōdiacus adze About this sound listen adze About this sound listen

Consonant combinations[edit]

Just as with vowels, most consonant combinations are pronounced no differently than the consonants in isolation. When there are two of the same consonant put together, such as mm or tt, it is almost as if you need to pronounce both consonants without a break, the result being that the sound is held longer than usual. However, there are several combinations which have special pronunciation. Once again, try to pronounce the word before listening to it.

Consonant combination Latin example Classical[15] Ecclesiastical[16]
Sounds like Listen Sounds like Listen
cc before e, i, ae, oe, y ecce kk About this sound listen ch About this sound listen
ch chorda kk About this sound listen kk About this sound listen
gn magnus ng-n About this sound listen ny About this sound listen
ph philosophia p-h About this sound listen f About this sound listen
sc before e, i, ae, oe, y scientia sk About this sound listen sh About this sound listen
th theātrum t About this sound listen t About this sound listen

Stress[edit]

In Latin, the stress on a word is placed on only one of two syllables: the one before the last syllable (the penultimate syllable, or penult), or the one before that (the antepenultimate syllable, or antepenult). The rules for stress are very simple:

  • If the vowel in the penult is long or a diphthong, the stress goes on the penult.
  • If the vowel in the penult is followed by x, z, or any two consonants, with the exception of a stop consonant (b, c, d, g, p, t) followed by a liquid consonant (l, r), the stress goes on the penult.

The letters x and z are treated like two consonants because they sound like two consonants: ks and dz. So the second rule condenses to any vowel followed by two consonants, except a stop-liquid combination. Note that a combination of two of the same consonant is still two consonants.

Here are some examples. We will mark the stressed syllable over its vowel with an accent mark.

pá•pa Eu•rṓ•pa fi•gū́•ra per•sṓ•na pan•thḗ•ra hal•lū•ci•nā́•tus
me•mó•ri•a sí•mi•lis pa•ra•dóx•us fun•dā•mén•tum ū•ni•cór•nis cál•cit•rō

Practice[edit]

Here are some readings to practice pronunciation and word stress on. If you're just starting out, you might want to practice pronunciation first, and after a few repetitions when you're certain you have the pronunciation down, work on stress.

Gallia est omnes dīvīsa in partēs trēs; quārum ūnam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquītānī, tertiam qui ipsōrum linguā Celtae, nostrā Gallī appellantur. Hī omnēs linguā, īnstitūtīs, lēgibus inter sē differunt. Gallōs ab Aquītānīs Garumna flūmen, ā Belgīs Mātrona et Sēquana dīvidit.[17]

Listen: About this sound Classical About this sound Ecclesiastical

Languēbam: sed tū comitātus prōtinus ad mē

venistī centum, Symmache, discipulīs.

Centum mē tetigēre manūs Aquilōne gelātae:

nōn habuī febrem, Symmache, nunc habeō.[18]
Listen: About this sound Classical About this sound Ecclesiastical

Notes[edit]

  1. Scribal colophon at the end of a fourteenth century manuscript, written by a presumably very grateful and very tired scribe. Lerer, Seth (2006). The Yale Companion to Chaucer. Yale University Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780300109290. 
  2. "Ecclesiastical Latin Pronunciation". CanticaNOVA. http://www.canticanova.com/latin_pron.htm. 
  3. Janson, p. 5
  4. de Angelis, pp. 8-9
  5. English has no equivalent, so we used a German word. You can listen to the basic sound of this vowel on Wikipedia.
  6. Wheelock, p. xli
  7. de Angelis, pp. 9-11
  8. If eu occurs before the last letter in a word, as in -eus or -eum, then this is not a diphthong because the two vowels belong to different syllables: -e•us and -e•um. This will become much more obvious when you get to the chapter on the first and second declension.
  9. Wheelock, p. xlii
  10. de Angelis, pp. 13-21
  11. h is always silent except in the words mihi and nihil, where it is pronounced as k.
  12. There was no letter J in the old Latin alphabet; instead the letter I was used. In fact, J was not even formally considered a separate letter from I in English until 1828 (Sacks, pp. 186, 196). In this book, we will not use J, and so we will use Iēsūs and not Jēsūs. Vicipaedia also does not use J.
  13. Use the alveolar trill (hear this on Wikipedia), and not the retroflex approximant (hear this on Wikipedia).
  14. As with J, the letter V was not considered distinct from U in English until 1828 (Sacks, p. 327). We will use V throughout this book. Vicipaedia also uses V.
  15. Wheelock, p. xlii
  16. de Angelis, pp. 13-21
  17. Caesar, De Bello Gallico (On the Gallic War). Gaul is all divided into three parts; of which the Belgians inhabit one, the Aquitani the other, those who are called in their own language Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ between themselves in language, institutions, laws. The river Garumna divides the Gauls from the Aquitani, the Matrona and Sequana (divides them) from the Belgians. By the time you complete a formal course in Latin, you may end up getting sick of De Bello Gallico.
  18. Martial, book V, epigram IX. I was languishing: but you, Symmachus, came to me on the spot accompanied by a hundred students. A hundred hands frozen by the North wind handled me: I didn't have a fever, Symmachus, but I do now. This is one of Martial's notable epigrams: it is safe to repeat in mixed company.

References[edit]