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There are some words that appear to be complete homonyms other than by the length of a vowel. For example, there is the word labellum, which can mean either a lip (part of the body) or a basin/sink. In both cases the word is neuter and the two words decline identically. However, the "a" in the word meaning lip is short, but it is long in the case of the basin.

In poetry this difference in vowel sound can be detected by the meter of the verse, but what about prose? In written prose is there any way to detect such a difference?

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There is no way to detect the vowel length in prose unless it is specifically indicated. Sometimes diacritics are used in prose for disambiguation:

  • aëris (not from aes but from aer)
  • pŏpulus (people, not poplar)
  • senatūs (genitive, not nominative)

The diaeresis is used to indicate that there is no diphthong, and the macron and the breve directly indicate vowel length.

If no such diacritics are present, there is no way to tell how long the vowels are in a word that you are previously unfamiliar with.

Even in poetry the quantity can be hidden. Scansion makes no difference between ĕst (he is) and ēst (he eats). Prose hides more than poetry, but neither shows everything.

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