Latin orthography seems to have been relatively phonemic. In other words, if long vowels are marked somehow (macrons or apices), there seems to be a straightforward mapping between letters and phonemes in the language.

Are there any real exceptions to this: Classical-era phonemic distinctions that aren't represented in spelling?

(I know long vowels are often left unmarked, so that alium and ālium look the same. But for the purposes of this question, assume vowel length is marked consistently and reliably.)

  • @Asteroides Given that there are near-minimal pairs like iambus vs jam, that one would count! I'm not sure if there are any similar cases for u/v.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 3:13
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    Would something like abicere spelt with I but pronounced as JI count? You can't deduce pronunciation from spelling, but I don't know of a minimal pair for this.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 9:01
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    The answer may differ for different dialects. Do you mean the classic pronunciation? For medieval ones it might a lot more complex.
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 9:17
  • @PavelV. Good point. I'll narrow it down to Classical.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 15:41
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    @CMonsour I don't know of any minimal pairs for final c versus cc, but consonant length is definitely phonemic in general; likewise, for Joonas's suggestion, there are near-minimal pairs like abit with /i/ versus abicit with /ji/.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


The fairly obvious:

  • Latin orthography is incapable of distinguishing /i/ from /j/, /jː/ (eius /ˈejːus/), and /ji/ (adicio /adˈjikioː/). These are phonemic distinctions: <i> between vowels is almost always /jː/, but it's /j/ in e.g. Gāius; <i> between a not-vowel (word boundary or consonant) and a vowel other than another <i> is almost always /j/, except in loans like iambus /iˈambus/; /ji/ isn't marked at all, because it doesn't "naturally" occur anywhere except in zero-grade compounds of iaciō (e.g. adiciō /adˈjikioː/), where the /j/ is sometimes restored by analogy (but actually adiciō /adˈikioː/ is also attested).
    (Conversely, I expect but have not confirmed the distinction between <ī> and <ii> is spurious at least some of the time.)

  • /w/ and /u/ are also certainly separate phonemes in Latin: there's a minimal pair in volvit /ˈwolwit/ 'he rolls' and voluit /ˈwoluit/ 'he wanted', spelled the same.

Also, the diphthongs ae /aj/, eu /ew/, oe /oj/, au /aw/, and ui /uj/ are not distinguishable from the corresponding sequences of two vowels: cui /cuj/ vs. fruitur /fru.i.tur/. Eu as a diphthong exclusively shows up in Greek loans and the interjection (ē)heu; in native words, possible confusion is limited almost entirely to a few instances of ui in practice.

The Greek phonemes that got their own spelling (ph, th, ch, and y) were certainly not separate phonemes for most Latin speakers. Likewise, pulcher was surely /'pulker/, not /ˈpulkʰer/, for almost everyone.

For a more out-there tack, a case could be made that vowel nasalisation, which was not reflected in writing, might have been phonemic for educated speakers:

The well-known instance of nasalisation is before word-final -m (mālum [ˈmaːlũː]), which is perfectly regular so you don't really need to represent it in writing: it's allophonic. It also happens regularly before a nasal consonant followed by /s/, and this is where it possibly breaks down:
E.g. consul [cõːsul] is frequently written as cosul, which is a non-phonemic spelling but can be dismissed as just an error; certainly the spelling consul also persists. It persists so hard, even, that eventually the n is restored to the pronunciation of the word, which is now [cõːnsul], still written consul: the nasalisation has become phonemic, and it is not represented in the spelling.

This is admittedly not an uncontroversial statement: all we know for sure is that in common speech, the n in these positions was not pronounced and the vowel was lengthened compensatorically (this is what we see reflected in the Romance languages, and also mentioned explicitly and implicitly by contemporary grammarians), and that educated Romans did tend to pronounce the n but also keep the vowel long (stated explicitly by Cicero and various grammarians). As far as I know the nasalisation is imputed entirely on typological grounds (Allen does not specify, and I'm away from my other books at the moment; the Romance languages all lost nasalisation everywhere so it's impossible to tell based on the descendants), but eminently plausible; that this nasalisation would be preserved in educated speech does not strike me as unlikely (especially since even the likes of Cicero neglected to pronounce the n in some words, surely with nasalisation there), but isn't directly confirmed.

It is, at least, a thing to consider.

  • How about eu, which I understand can mean a diphthong as in Europa and eheu or two syllables as in eum and aureus, and is not marked by a diæresis in any period's spelling conventions?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 13:24
  • @BenKovitz I though about (ē)heu but I rejected it for the same reason I would reject the idea that tutting means English has a click phoneme, and apart from that I don't think there's any native word that has eu as a diphthong, but you're right that Europa is a prominent loan I forgot about. There's actually a few others, like eulogia and eunuchus (also the title of a play by Terrence). I'll amend.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 14:23
  • Don't you mean that the nasalization in consul was phonemic before the N was restored, rather than after? When the N is there the nasalization is predictable.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 17:24
  • @TKR No, Vns > Ṽːs is perfectly regular (the nasalisation is effectively allophonic), Vns > Ṽːns is not.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 17:31
  • Are you saying that [Ṽːns] contrasted with [V:ns] for some speakers? What's the evidence for that?
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 17:55

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