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I am trying to start learning Latin because it sounds like a fun language to learn. It will also help me with English words and prefixes, among other things. This means that I know literally nothing about Latin. Now for the actual question:

Why are some sounds differently pronounced to how they are written? For example, I have a textbook that marks whether a vowel is long or short. It writes the word "lyricus" with no long vowel. Why, then, is the u pronounced as "oo" instead of a short "u" sound? The same goes for the second e in teneo. The o is marked long, but why do you pronounce it te-nay-oh instead of te-ne-oh? I know that the second version is almost impossible to say, but why does the textbook just mark the e as long?

If there are any misconceptions with things I'm writing or you are confused because I stated something wrong, please correct me.

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    Welcome to the site! What languages do you speak, if I may ask? English isn't a great match with Latin in terms of sounds, so some other language might serve better as a point of reference.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 14 at 15:02
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    Long story short: whoever it is that you're listening to might be inaccurate.
    – cmw
    Apr 14 at 15:23
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I only speak English, but I am taking a Spanish class as well (the reason I can roll my rs.) My goal in life is to learn, so I decided that I can take Spanish at school and Latin in my free time, if that helps. Apr 14 at 16:08
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    Hi Jack, welcome to the site! That's an admirable goal. If it helps at all, I will say that when looking at Latin vowels and Latin spelling, the sounds you have learned in Spanish class will almost always be a more useful starting point for comparison than the sounds you use for the same letters in English. Spanish is much more closely related to Latin, indeed directly descended from it, and its spelling system is a direct descendant of Latin's spelling. Not everything in Spanish is pronounced or spelled the same in Latin, but it will require much less of a shift to get from one to the other. Apr 14 at 16:18
  • I'll make sure to utilize Spanish pronunciation then. Thanks! I do have a habit of setting goals that are way too big, but this one I think I'll follow through on - I've always loved languages and the idea of being a polyglot Apr 14 at 16:45

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It sounds like you are learning the reconstructed pronunciation system for Latin. This pronunciation system represents what we think ancient Latin speakers sounded like. Latin speakers used Latin sounds, not English sounds, so there are some situations where it is difficult to discuss Latin pronunciation by reference to English. English has weird vowel sounds compared to most other European languages. Latin spelling is mostly straightforward, but in a few areas Latin has multiple sounds that correspond to a single spelling. The reason for this is either because the sounds are related in Latin, or because Latin speakers naturally used different alternatives in different contexts.

The vowel in the last syllable of "lyricus" is a Latin short "u" sound. This is pronounced the same as in the first syllable of a word like "puto" or "sunt". There is no exact equivalent in most accents of English; it's certainly not the sound most English accents use in words like "nut", "gust", or "fun", but it also isn't exactly the sound used in "boost", "moon", or the one in "foot", "put". In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the Latin short u sound is best represented by either [ʊ] or [u]. The sound [ʊ] is like the German short u sound; the sound [u] is like the Italian or Spanish "u" sound, or the French “ou” sound. (There is some disagreement about whether the Latin short u sound differed in Classical times from the long u sound in the quality of the vowel, or only in duration.) If you’re comparing to English, the sound of “oo” before “l”, as in “cool” or “fool”, is a bit closer to [u] in most accents than the sound of “oo” before other consonant sounds.

In the case of teneo, there is an argument, presented in W. Sidney Allen's Vox Latina, that any vowel before another vowel in Latin had the same quality as a long vowel. For "e", this means in the system Allen describes that the vowel had the quality [e] rather than [ɛ], despite being short. (The vowel [e] is usually approximated by English speakers as "ay".) However, this isn't necessarily an absolute phenomenon; it's possible some variability between both qualities existed, as Romance languages show some outcomes suggesting the quality [ɛ] was also possible in some cases (for example, French dieu, from Latin deum, has a diphthong ie, which generally goes back to [ɛ] rather than [e]).

Regardless of whether the quality of e in this position was [e], [ɛ], or either indifferently, it was pronounced with a short duration, and so counts rhythmically as a short vowel. (This is significant in poetry.) This is the reason why the vowel is not marked long.

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  • +1. I wonder if the OP is also concerned about the quantity difference between Latin "u" [u] and English "oo" [u:].
    – Rafael
    Apr 14 at 15:19
  • So, to clarify, the short/long vowel distinction applies more to the length of the vowel than to the vowel sound itself, though the short/long distinction DOEs still correlate with the vowel? Secondly, does that mean that every vowel before a long vowel should be pronounced as long, and are there other rules like this in a well-thought-out list or something like that? Finally, should I just keep learning how words are pronounced with google translate until I get vowels and diphthongs down? Apr 14 at 15:57
  • @JackWilliam: The long/short distinction in Latin is primarily about duration. For e i o u, there might also have been a secondary difference in the vowel quality. Allen says short e i before another vowel have the same quality as long e i. It probably makes sense to extend that to u as well, and to o (although o before a vowel is extremely rare in Latin). I will edit this answer a bit later with links to audio. Google translate is not the best
    – Asteroides
    Apr 14 at 16:06
  • So in general, I should pronounce a short vowel followed by a long vowel as a long vowel, correct? Apr 14 at 16:44
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    @dosvarog: For historical reasons, when speaking of English specifically, "long" is often used to refers to a set of diphthongized vowels ("long i" = the diphthong /aɪ/, vs "short i" = /ɪ/).
    – Asteroides
    Apr 15 at 9:47

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