I am a beginner with Latin and am confused about the overlined vowels.

The textbook I have explains these via vowels of English words, but I think that is unsatisfactory, because when learning other languages, each language has its own "sound", and you can’t express this via another language's "sound". You can identify many languages entirely by their sound.

Each language has a different gamut. Different languages are spoken using different zones of the mouth and throat, for example, French is spoken near the lips, and German is spoken nearer the throat. You can only learn the sound of a language by hearing it spoken properly, and some things can only be understood by observing, not by explanation.

Question 1: Is overlining the same as "stress"? Where, say, with the word "traditional", if you almost delete all vowels except the stressed one, it still sounds right, namely tr'd-i-sh'n'l, so that first i is the stress, and English dictionaries often demarcate the stressed vowel with a ' symbol after the vowel, for example, tradi'tional, where they also write it using some phonetic script, for example, something like tredi'shenul, but with funny symbols.

Question 2: Is an overlined vowel a different sound from the non overlined version? Or is it entirely a matter of "stress", that is, time-length.

Question 3: is the overlining done in ancient Latin? For example, the Latin spoken by Caesar, or is it an artefact of later eras? The same way Hebrew scholars add in vowels, as ancient Hebrew didn’t have vowels, which I think leads to ambiguities. So the Hebrew vowels are artefacts of later eras and in some ambiguous cases could be wrong.

Question 4: are there any online audio sources to hear ancient Latin spoken? With maybe some guessing of the pronunciation. In particular, to hear how people think the vowels were said, as expressing them with English vowels is unsatisfactory. The textbook I have says long u is like oo in "food", and short u is like u in "put".

But the first problem with this, is there are many many dialects of English just in England so it is onlooker-relative and thus no use, and the second problem is with the version of English I use, food and put aren’t just different vowel "lengths" but also different sounds. It’s ambiguous whether the author means the sound, or the length, or both, and it could in any case just be how he was taught which with the generations could diverge from the truth. Even begin divergent. For example, at our school, with German we were taught to roll r for German, but in fact in Germany, the r is essentially an h sound.

Standard British English has at least 11 non diphthong vowels, for example, the vowels of the following are all different for me: hat, hut, hot, put, hoot, heat, hit, hem, her, harp, hawk. but with American English, hot and hut are the same.

I have a teach-yourself-Latin book also which has an audio cassette, but that is ecclesiastical Latin, and the book is themed around a monastery, and ecclesiastical Latin apparently is a different sound from classical Latin. To fix things really precisely, I am asking about say the Latin spoken by Caesar, as he kind of personifies classical Latin. Whereas ecclesiastical Latin is essentially outsider Latin. I opted for a different book set in the 1st century BC.

Languages evolve continually, so it’s a moving target, but I think you can distill out a self coherent language from a general era. It will never be as good as having grown up in the society.

When British people speak Latin, I think the pronunciation is probably completely incorrect as they speak it with a British accent, which cannot possibly be correct, but it is probably self consistent. Someone from ancient Rome would probably struggle to understand them.

  • 2
    You may want to read this first latin.stackexchange.com/a/2689/39 and then latin.stackexchange.com/a/1498/39
    – Alex B.
    Jan 12, 2022 at 16:18
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    I'm not sure what the purpose of the first paragraph is, but on my desktop screen in normal reading font size the height of the question (even without that first paragraph) is 30 cm. The screen has only 30 cm in total, and some of that is lost by the browser title bar, URL bar and SE's black top bar. (On my vertical screen it's 40 cm high, because the line lengths are shorter.) Jan 12, 2022 at 23:49
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    Distinct from “length,” Stack Exchange works best (and usually enforces, though I’m not entirely sure of the norms on this particular site) one-question-per-Question. That allows answerers to cover each one fully, allows the best answer to each question to be voted on independently, and ultimately, gets you better answers sooner. You should consider splitting up the question on those grounds alone.
    – KRyan
    Jan 13, 2022 at 15:13
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    There are some incorrect (and also irrelevant) assertions in the question, eg 1) Stress and time-length are different (though sometimes related) phenomena. 2) Ancient Hebrew had vowels, they just weren't written down (much like in modern Arabic). 3) 'hot' and 'hut' are not the same vowel in standard American English. Note the different transliterations in the Merriam-Webster (American) English dictionary: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hot vs merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hut. I think your question will be improved by removing these asides & being more focused.
    – Tiercelet
    Jan 13, 2022 at 16:34
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    I may pronounce Harry/hairy and merry/marry/Mary the same, but I certainly don't pronounce hot/hut the same. Jan 13, 2022 at 18:22

2 Answers 2


Q1: my first question is whether overlining is the same as "stress"?

Not really. The overline indicates vowel length—how long you sustain the vowel sound—which is a component of stress in English. But Latin vowel length is a property of each individual vowel, while English stress is a property of the whole word. For example, pila, pilā, pīla, and pīlā are all different Latin words with different meanings; English has "project" and "project", but can't have *"project" (all stressed) or *"project" (nothing stressed).

Q2: is an overlined vowel a different sound from the non overlined version? or is it entirely a matter of "stress" ie time-length.

Sometimes yes. The sound of ē seems to have been closer to the sound of i than the sound of e, for example.

Q3: is the overlining done in ancient Latin? eg the latin spoken by Caeser, or is it an artefact of later eras. The same way hebrew scholars add in vowels, as ancient hebrew didnt have vowels, which I think leads to ambiguities. So the hebrew vowels are artefacts of later eras and in some ambiguous cases could be wrong.

It's important to make a distinction here between the writing and the language. Ancient Hebrew generally didn't indicate all the vowels in writing, but they were definitely still part of the spoken language! In this case, we know Caesar pronounced the difference between long and short vowels, but didn't always write it. (It was sometimes written, but not always.)

Q4: are there any online audio sources to hear ancient Latin spoken?

I'm fond of Johan Winge's recordings, personally. The pronunciation he uses is a reconstruction of how formal, upper-class Latin would have been spoken around the first century BCE, so reasonably close to Caesar.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cmw
    Jan 13, 2022 at 21:20

In addition to Draconis' excellent answer, you may also be interested to know that:

  • The overline is called a macron.
  • Macrons were not used by the ancient Romans, and today they are almost only used in dictionaries and teaching materials. The Romans knew which vowels were long and which were short, and us non-Romans have to learn it by heart.
  • Vowel length influences syllable length. Syllables with a long vowel are always long, those with short vowels only under certain conditions (if the vowel is followed by certain consonant clusters). Dipthongs are also long.
  • Syllable length is the basis of all classical Latin poetry. Stress was completely disregarded. There is also Latin poetry based on stress, but it is from later eras.
  • Syllable length influences stress. Words with three or more syllables are stressed on the third to last syllable, unless the second to last one is long; in that case, they are stressed on the second to last syllable. (For example, tenēre is stressed teNEre, regere is stressed REgere.)
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    @Commenter If no vowel is marked long, then no vowel is long. Double uu is indeed not the same as ū, domuum has three syllables. Lots of Latin words have only short vowels, but your conclusion "ie no stress at all" is wrong, because (a) stress does not depend on vowel length but on syllable length and (b) if all syllables are short, the third to last syllable is stressed. Jan 13, 2022 at 22:49
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    The ancient Romans did not use macrons, but they did sometimes use apices, which served the same function. Observe them on this monument; the apices are the thin accents over the long vowels (also note that capital "i" was made taller instead of using an apex): commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/… Jan 14, 2022 at 13:43
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    I'd also add that "stress was completely disregarded" is not quite true of Latin poetry. The poets did care which syllables were stressed; it's just that the stress did not define the meter and was a secondary concern. In particular, the stresses tend to coincide with long syllables at the end of a line of dactylic hexameter, giving a sense of resolution. Jan 14, 2022 at 13:50
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    @Commenter: You misunderstood Sebastian's reply. domuum does not have a "uu" sound. It has three syllables: do-mu-um.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 14, 2022 at 17:18
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    @Commenter Lots of people say things that are incorrect. Just because a "teach yourself" course mentions something doesn't mean they're accurate. People can be wrong.
    – cmw
    Jan 16, 2022 at 6:24

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