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In the olden days, before they had invented letters J and U, the way they spelled words like IVLIVS always seemed to me like they could be misread a little, and if you don't know the word, you don't know where the syllable breaks are. That word is Julius, of course, but could also be read as *juljus, or *ivljus, or any other way. It could have as few as 2 syllables or as many as 4. At least, if we mechanically count all permutations of I/J times U/V.

Is Latin known to have phonotactic reasons to not allow any of those interpretations? Is there a reason why that word must be Julius, and not iuljus or ivlivs or anything like that?

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    I am not aware of a rule, but I wouldn't expect a 100% rule. Spelling isn't a precise pronunciation instruction in almost any writing system. In Latin you need to know which vowels are long and which pairs form diphthongs. Moderns write u and v separately, use macrons, and use a diaeresis to distinguish aere (air) from aere (brass).
    – C Monsour
    Oct 29, 2019 at 13:20
  • Especially tricky with Anglo Saxon names with "W." Is it UU like graduum gen pl.? or Welsh W/OO? or UV, VU?
    – Hugh
    Oct 29, 2019 at 20:41

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"ivl", "jvl", "ivs" or "jvs" are phonotactically impossible. Latin does not allow either /iw/ or a diphthong /iu̯/ (which some analyses would treat as the same thing) to occur before consonants. That rule of phonotactics has no violations, and allows us to infer that both V's in IVLIVS must be vowels.

As for the I's, it is technically possible in terms of phonotactics for I to be either /i/ or /j/ when followed by a vowel. However, you can with high accuracy predict which one it is based on what comes before it: I is almost always the vowel /i/ when preceded by a consonant (unless that consonant comes at the end of a word or at the end of a prefix) and almost always the consonant /j/ at the start of a word (or after a prefix) (exceptions occur in Greek names). IVLIVS is pronounced according to these tendencies, so the first I is a consonant and the second is a vowel.

When I occurs in the middle of a word between vowels, it usually has a third pronunciation, a non-syllabic geminate /jj/, as in maior, cuius, eius.

Alex B.'s answer to When is an I not an I? gives more specifications and exceptions.

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  • As for your examples maior, cuius, eius, can we say it's geminate because it belongs to both syllables? Jan 22, 2023 at 14:37
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    @Героямслава: Yes, it's usually interpreted in that context as belonging to both syllables, so a geminate consonant [j.j] like the geminate [m.m] found in flamma.
    – Asteroides
    Jan 22, 2023 at 18:43

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