I am studying Latin and one of the definitions in my textbook is kind of confusing.

A syllable can be long in one of two ways:

  1. Length by nature. If the syllable contains a long vowel or dipthong, it is said to be long by nature.
  2. Length by position. If the syllable contains a vowel which is followed by two consonants, it is said to be long by position. x (= ks) is said to be a double consonant.

( "Latin: An Intensive Course" by Floyd Moreland and Rita M. Fleischer)

The first part of this question is: How can a vowel be long by position (besides the case of x)? As far as I'm aware, when a vowel is followed by two or more consonants, only the first is included in the same syllable as the vowel. Am I wrong, or are there simply more special cases like x that I haven't learned about yet?

The second part is: What does it actually mean for something to be long by position? Is the vowel pronounced as if it were marked long, even if it isn't?


1 Answer 1


Any syllable that ends in a consonant (one or more) is heavy

It's clearer to use the terms "heavy syllables" and "light syllables" rather than "long by position" and "long by nature". As described in the answers to a previous question, What makes a syllable "heavy" or "light"?, a light syllable can be defined as a syllable that ends in a short vowel.

For the purposes of the quoted rule (" If the syllable contains a vowel which is followed by two consonants, it is said to be long by position"), the two consonants mentioned do not both have to belong to the same syllable as the vowel. It is sufficient for only the first consonant to belong to the same syllable as the vowel.

Most sequences of consonants are divided between syllables in Latin, and so most sequences of consonants cause a preceding syllable to be heavy. For example, pango, stultus, discus all start with heavy (="long by position") syllables: pan, stul, dis. Doubled consonant letters in Latin represent doubled (or "geminate") consonant sounds, which are also divided between syllables, as in passus, siccus, terra, which start with the heavy syllables pas, sic, ter.

In the middle of a word, the only consonant sequences that are not always split between syllables are two-consonant clusters where the first consonant is one of P T C B D G F (PH TH CH) and the second consonant is one of L R. In a cluster of this form, both consonants may be grouped with the following syllable: for example, the word tenebrae has the syllabification te.ne.brae, and also an alternative syllabification te.neb.rae. In poetry, the syllabification of words like tenebrae is fairly free, but any cluster formed by adding a consonant-final prefix to a base starting with L or R must be split between syllables (so a word like oblītus always starts with two heavy syllables, ob and ).

Aside from X, there are a few more cases where Latin spelling represents two consonant sounds with just one letter. The most important are J (also written I) and Z: when these occur between vowels in the middle of a word, they almost always represent doubled consonant sounds /jj/ and /zz/, which were divided between syllables just like other doubled consonant sounds. So for example, major/maior, which was really pronounced majjor, starts with the heavy syllable maj.

Syllabification and "length by position" in multi-word sequences

When a word ending in a consonant comes before a word starting with a vowel, the word-final consonant is regularly moved to the start of the following syllable. In contrast, before a word starting with a consonant, a word-final consonant remains at the end of a syllable and makes the syllable heavy (or "long by position").

So the first syllable of the phrase ad rem is heavy or "long by position" (/ad/)—despite having a short vowel—since it is syllabified as ad.rem, but the first syllable of the phrase ad oppidum is short (/a/), since it is syllabified as a.dop.pi.dum.

Likewise, a single consonant in the middle of a word is always grouped with the following rather than the preceding vowel.

This is why traditional sources often phrase the rule of heavy ("long by position") syllables in terms of a vowel being followed by at least two consonants. The two consonants don't both have to be in the same syllable, or even in the same word.

At the start of a word, a two-consonant sequence that ends in R or L is generally grouped with the following syllable, even when the preceding word ends with a vowel, so a phrase like sine prōle would normally be syllabified as si.ne.prō.le, where the second syllable is light.

At the start of a word, a sequence of two or more consonants that starts with S, such as st sp sc str, may either be syllabified entirely with the following syllable, or may be split between syllables (making the final syllable of the preceding word "long by position"). Authors differ in how they treat this, although there seems to be a tendency for poets to simply avoid placing words that end in a short vowel before words that start with a consonant cluster beginning with S. In the middle of a word, such sequences are always split between syllables.

Long vowels and short vowels still contrasted in closed syllables

The reason for calling heavy syllables "long by position" is because syllables with long vowels and syllables ending in consonants were treated the same way in Latin poetry. Latin poetry has rules for which syllables in a line should be heavy and which should be light.

There was still a distinction between long and short vowels in syllables that ended in a consonant. For example, the word āctus had a long vowel /aː/ and the word factus had a short vowel /a/.The distinction just didn't make a difference to the behavior of the syllable in poetic meter: "āc" and "ac" are both heavy syllables. You should not pronounce a vowel as a long vowel just because it occurs in a syllable ending in a consonant.

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