In his New Latin Grammar, Bennett states (5.B.1.c):

A syllable is long if it contains a short vowel followed by x, z, or any two consonants"

As an example to this rule he gives the word restō, but I fail to understand what this really means. Does it mean that the length of the syllable is independent of the actual distribution of the said "following consonants" among the syllables?

In this particular example, the word is syllabified as res-to, with t in the syllable following that containing e, but t being in another syllable does not really matter and the syllable res- is long because e in the written word is followed by the letters -st-. Is this the case?

Also, I am struggling to understand how x is joined to the preceding syllable without being separated into c and s. The book states (4.5) that "the double consonant x is joined to the preceding vowel", so I believe the word axis, syllabified as ax-is, is pronounced ['aks.is], not ['ak.sis], but this, to me, sounds extremely unnatural. I suppose my native language may play a role in this sounding unnatural, because for example ['a.ksis] would sound completely normal to me, as does ['ak.sis].


1 Answer 1


Note: For clarity, I generally prefer the words heavy and light for syllables, and long and short for vowels, so that's what I'll be using here. I'm also going to explain a lot of terms that you probably already know, for the sake of being useful to future readers who won't know what "coda" or "onset" mean.

In Latin, a syllable is heavy if it contains either:

  • A long vowel or diphthong ("heavy by nature") OR
  • A coda consonant ("heavy by position")

In other words, a syllable is heavy regardless of its vowel if it has a consonant after the vowel, within the syllable. Thus, the first syllable of restō is heavy because the syllables are res-tō, and there's a consonant (an s) after the vowel within the first syllable.

So, you might then ask, how do we know where to put the consonants when they come between to syllables? Why not re-stō or rest-ō?

The rule is, in general, if there's one consonant between vowels, it goes into the following syllable; if there are multiple consonants between vowels, they're split between the syllables. Hence re-dō but res-tō. This is what Bennett is trying to say here: you only get a coda consonant when there are two consonants between the vowels. The only exception to this is that a stop followed by a liquid (like pl or gr) is generally put into the following syllable: re-gres-sus. (This exception is traditionally called the "muta cum liquida" rule, Latin for "stop plus liquid".)

This applies to x (/ks/) and z (/zz/) exactly as you'd expect: axis syllabifies as /ak.sis/, and since the first syllable has a coda, it's heavy. Writing it as ax-is is just a workaround for the fact that a single letter is representing two consonants, and a›-‹is looks weird. Qu, on the other hand, is a single consonant (/kʷ/), even if it's written with two letters: a-qua.

This even applies across word boundaries! That's why the "two consonants" rule works, without having to worry about word-final single consonants. In the first line of the Aeneid, the second syllable of prīmus ab ōrīs ("first from the shores") is light, because the syllabification is prī-mu-sa-bō-rīs. Conversely, the fourth syllable of Ītaliam fātō ("[to] Italy, by fate") is heavy, because the syllabification is Ī-ta-li-am-fā-tō.

  • Put nicely and in detail. Thank you!
    – Bill Heap
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 23:34
  • Still, I don't understand why Bennet has gone for that kind of wording. I don't see how "contains a short vowel followed by [...] two consonants" is more comprehensible than "ends in a consonant," even if the target group of the book were non-linguists.
    – Bill Heap
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 23:39
  • 4
    @BillHeap Mostly to avoid getting into the details of syllabification, I'd imagine. "Followed by two consonants" is a good rule of thumb for scanning poetry, and the idea of syllabification rules working regularly across word boundaries can be less than obvious.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 23:42
  • Is z really /zz/ and not something like /ts/? Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 12:37
  • @HagenvonEitzen I believe so (according to Allen at least), but that would make a good new question!
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 16:58

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