Correct me if I'm wrong. There are 6 diphthongs in Latin:


So if one were to encounter ăĕ it would follow that both vowels would be short and do not together form diphthong which they normally do.

Do any of the great modern Latin Grammarians or Lexicologists such as Lewis, Gaffiot, Georges, Greenough, or Wheellock depart from this system and use breves in any other way?

Personally I believe the best system would be to assume a vowel is short, unless it belongs to one of the 6 diphthongs or there is a macron over it. I only favor writing breves over vowels which normally form part of a diphthong but when they do not, this is marked with a breve.


There is another system used in scanning poetry where scanned lines are done according to syllable length and a breve is used to mark a short syllable and a macron is used to mark a long syllable. In that case since diphthongs make a syllable long, I've seen some authors mark 'aequore' as:


In this way there are three syllables, the first long and the next two short. However, for my present purposed I'm mostly concerned with the words written in dictionaries.

1 Answer 1


Use of breve

The breve is only used for emphasis. In the typical Latin text no breve or macron appears. When vowel lengths need to be indicated, it is often done by adding macrons over all long vowels or only those that are useful for clarity. It is only when extra care is needed that the length of every vowel is indicated, and this is where the breve comes in. I don't think I have ever seen this approach taken in a full sentence, but only in grammars (usually only when discussing morphology) and some dictionaries.

Even in many dictionaries only the long vowels are marked and the absence of a macron indicates a short vowel. This is logically enough, but sometimes redundancy leads to better communication. In the absence of any markings one can always ask whether a vowel is long or short, but no ambiguity remains if a breve or a macron is present.

Sometimes people use individual breves for disambiguation. For example, pŏpulus is "people" instead of "poplar" and băro is "baron" instead of "idiot". Macrons can be used similarly when needed.

In Lewis and Short the breve has a special disambiguating function even though macrons are used. Both and are vowels, but the unmarked i is a consonant. This is a reasonable convention, as it makes the pronunciation clear and does not resort to using j which is a less common spelling variant even for consonantal i. When precision is needed, consider also the disambiguation between I/J and U/V.

Breaking diphthongs

There is a third diacritic, the diaeresis. It indicates that a vowel belongs to a different syllable than the preceding one but makes no comment on the length: aëris (from aer) has three syllables but aeris (from aes) has two. Sometimes they are added to assist people less fluent in Latin, as in the name Nausicaä; two consequent a's are always in different syllables in Latin, but that is not obvious to everyone.

The diaeresis is a common way to mark broken diphthongs. If either vowel has a macron or a breve, then the two vowels are understood to be in different syllables instead of forming a diphthong.

If you want to indicate that you have a diphthong, you can spell ae with the ligature æ instead. This ligature is only used for the diphthong. This option is only available for ae and oe, but disambiguation is rarely if ever needed with the other diphthongs. (In some cases you can indicate a diphthong by drawing an arc over the two letters, but I have only found that useful for singing instructions when the singer needs to be reminded of the diphthong.)

Vowel vs. syllable quantity

Sometimes macrons and breves are used to indicate syllable quantity instead of vowel quantity. This is particularly common in poetry where syllable quantity is what matters. No convention is universal, so your readers are likely to be slightly unsure what you mean by diacritics unless you specify it explicitly.


The whole point of diacritical marks is to communicate more effectively. There are no hard rules as to when and how they should be used, and the best choice depends on context and goals. In typical texts no diacritical marks are used at all, apart from perhaps the occasional aëris, pŏpulus, and senatūs for clarity.

What you describe as the best system in your opinion (all vowels are short unless part of diphthong or marked long) is indeed a common choice if vowel quantity is indicated at all. If you only prefer to use a breve to indicate that there is no diphthong, I recommend using the diaeresis instead; this is exactly what it is for. With this adjustment your system is typical and therefore good for communication.

It is always good to know your target audience. Some languages have letters like æ and ä, and readers unfamiliar with Latin are likely to parse those wrong. If the audience is already familiar with the language, interference with other languages is far smaller an issue.

  • 1
    Thanks I appreciate that.
    – bobsmith76
    Jun 30, 2021 at 11:12
  • With regards to the diaeresis: Be advised though, that in numerous languages it is used to create separate letters, so if writing either in a language where this is the case, or for an audience where they are likely to misread this as such, italics or other formatting to demarcate text which is written in another language than either that which your work is written in and/or the language of your target audience. Swedish, Finnish, German and Slovak ä =/≈ Norwegian/Danish æ; in Latin, æ (as used e.g. in Gaffiot) is ae. Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, German, Turkish ö = Norwegian/Danish ø.
    – Canned Man
    Jun 30, 2021 at 12:31
  • In Norwegian, a diaeresis is sometimes used, for example in Zaïre (as Norwegian has the diphthong ai). So yes, I agree, the diaeresis is a good symbol to use, but be advised that it, too, can be misread. (Just read about Mötley Crüe’s first crowd experiences in Germany. /møtli kryː/!)
    – Canned Man
    Jun 30, 2021 at 12:34
  • 3
    @CannedMan Indeed, the Finnish pronunciation of Nausicaä is amusing. Far better to leave the the dots out or spell it Nausica'a or something. This is yet another reason to not give too universal answers, as the language context besides Latin makes a difference for how the audience is likely to react. I'll have to edit something in about ligatures; I forgot to bring them up.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 30, 2021 at 12:38
  • Oh yes, indeed. Cæsar is pronounced /ˈsæːsar/ in Norwegian (or /ˈseːsar/ if you are posh or from some very specific dialect groups), /siːzə/ in English and /kae̯.sar/ in Latin, even though it is (or could be) spelt exactly the same way.
    – Canned Man
    Jun 30, 2021 at 13:20

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