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First of all, a warm hello to all the users here!

I was recently thinking about the pronunciation of nūntius and nūntiāre along with its derivatives (such as prōnūntiāre). According to "Latin for Beginners" by Benjamin L. D'Ooge, the "ū" in "nūntius" is long by exception because vowels before nt and nd are short.

My question is as follows: Is there a specific reason why this vowel is long despite the aforementioned rule?

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Is there actually any strong evidence for a long u in nuntius? French annoncer suggests a short vowel. – fdb Mar 29 at 10:29
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Monophthongization (of diphthongs in Latin) most likely happened after Osthoff's shortening (in Proto-Italic).

Osthoff's law: A long vowel before a liquid, nasal, or glide plus a stop was shortened (Weiss 2009, p. 125).

Monophthongization in this case was *eu > *ū (completed by the end of the 3rd century BCE),

/eu/ > /ou/ > /o̝ː/ > /uː/ (Clackson and Horrocks 2007/2011: 95).

Note that Osthoff's shortening most likely happened already in Proto-Italic, cf. Meiser 1998 "Schon im Uritalischen sind Langdiphthonge vor Konsonant gekürzt worden" (p. 75) or Sihler 1995 "[l]ong vowels were shortened in prehistoric times before a resonant plus consonant" (para 82).

*nouentiio > nountios (G.L. 6.12.18; Tronskii 1960: 104) > nuntius (*neu- 'shout') (Weiss 2009: 278).

However, Weiss 2009 writes that Osthoff's law happened "at least three times in the history of Latin" (p. 125).

Weiss does mention that "probably yet another round of Osthoff's also applied after monophthongization (P. 126) and he gives one example,

*oino(m)-dekem > ūndecim > undecim

Note the word "probably" though; cf. Leumann, Hofmann, and Szantyr 1977, para 119:γ, "Verhältnismäßig jung (frühestens IIa) muss die Kürzung erfolgt sein bei ī und ū aus oi ou ove."

That is why - taking into account evidence from ancient grammars and Romance languages - Sihler 1995 writes that "[e]vidence for the length of these vowels, however, is conflicting (para 82b).

NB: Sihler reasonably avoids referring to vowel shortening in Greek and Latin as Osthoff's Law because these two processes were independent (i.e. not shared innovations).

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Good answer, +1. BTW you are impressively ahead on your reading: "Weiss 2099". :-) – LarsH Mar 28 at 18:11
Great and well-researched answer, +1. Any way you can edit this for readability? There's an impressive array of information here, but it could be more cohesive. I love 6-syllable words, but I like them even better when they're defined so that a 6-year-old can understand them (as monophthongization certainly can be). – brianpck Mar 28 at 21:09
Thanks for the excellent answer which you have provided! Of course, I cannot deny that brianpck's was useful, too. – Agrippa Mar 29 at 19:03

For my answer, I will use Bennett's New Latin Grammar as a reference. There are two important rules which come together to make a long ū in nūntius.

  1. As you noted, a vowel followed by nt or nd is usually short, e.g. laudănt, landăndi.

    The usual exception to this rule occurs in compounds whose first word includes a long vowel, such as nōndum (nōn dum). This is not the case with nūntius and nūntiare, however.

  2. There is, however, another rule at work here: vowels that are the result of a contraction are long, e.g. nīlum for nihilum. If you look at the Lewis & Short entry for nuntius, you will see that it is conjectured to be a contraction of the longer word noventius (from the older verb novere: "to make new").

Presumably, the first nt rule is at work in the original word: novĕntius and then the second rule comes into play to contract the first two syllables into its current form: nūntius

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If you look more carefully at the entry in Lewis and Short you will see that it actually says "perh. contr. from noventius"; NB: "perhaps". In any case, this etymology is not universally accepted in more recent literature, e.g. not by de Vaan. – fdb Mar 28 at 22:43
Edited accordingly. Are you aware of a plausible alternative etymology proposed by other scholars? – brianpck Mar 29 at 0:05

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