The ukulele also called Uke, is a member of the lute family of instruments of Portuguese origin and popularized in Hawaii.

Cithara Havaiana is used in Vicipaedia but it seems wrong since this instrument is of Portuguese origin and that it is closer to a testudo rather than a cithara (I think?).

What would you use?

Edit Cithara Lusitanica refers to another instrument.

  • 2
    I would call it a uculele, personally, but I'm guessing you specifically want to use only classical words rather than loans?
    – Draconis
    Aug 14, 2022 at 16:24
  • Yes indeed, primarily classical Latin, why not a word of later use, but definitely not a neologism
    – Yvan
    Aug 14, 2022 at 17:23

1 Answer 1


The Wikipedia article on ukulele mentions that it was "developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin". The instrument was not in existence before that, and there was no word for it. If you want to stick with Classical Latin, the question has to be shifted from "What is ukulele in Classical Latin?" to "What would the Romans have called an ukulele?", and this new question is necessarily speculative.

There does not seem to be a well established Latin name for the ukulele in Latin of any era. If you want a translation, it is important to know the purpose:

  • If the purpose is to call it what the Romans might have called it, then a cithara or testudo of some sort sounds likely. (Wikipedia mentions that the ukulele is in the lute class, so testudo might be closer. Both make sense. Wikipedia lists some Roman string instruments.) If we are to associate it with Portugal — which, unlike Hawaii, has the benefit of being known to the Romans — then cithara/testudo Lusitanica sounds right. The Portuguese guitar whose Vicipaedia article you link to did not exist at the Roman time either, and it could well have earned the same name in Roman speech.

    (It is likely that the Romans would have named the instrument after where they found it, not after where it was originally from. Thorough research and thought before naming is rare, and we should not expect it. This is indeed why the ukulele is considered Hawaiian: it is commonly found there. The translation chosen by Vicipaedia makes sense.)

  • If the purpose is to write about the instrument to a modern audience, then you had better call it ukulele in Latin. Or perhaps modify it to uculele or even uculela. If you choose anything else, chances are that the word will fail to communicate what the instrument actually is. Language is mostly used for the purpose of communication, and that brings many practical constraints. Many people know the word "ukulele" but few know enough of its origins to connect it to any other name you might come up with, no matter how logical.

    If you go this route, you have to choose how to decline the word. If the word only appears a few times, then the undeclined ukulele is a good option, perhaps paired with a word like cithara/testudo or instrumentum to give a hint of its nature and carry visible case markings. If you use it more often, it is convenient to make the word itself follow a declension. The most obvious options seem to be (with C or K as you prefer):

    • First declension feminine after switching the final vowel: uculela, uculelae.
    • Third declension neuter: uculele, uculelis.
  • If the purpose is something else, then the translation might be something else.

Unfortunately there is no unique and correct answer. What you should do depends on what you want to achieve, but my general suggestion would be simply ukulele or perhaps uculela. This is the case with translations more often than not, especially with things that have a well known name across various languages. (Cf. opossum.)

  • Thank you very much for your answer, I will think about the different options It seems to me that for the second proposal, the third declination is more natural
    – Yvan
    Aug 15, 2022 at 11:04
  • Good rundown, although Wikipedia says the ukulele is a lute-class instrument, so I imagine testudo should actually be the right one. Citharae are closer to lyres, as far as I can tell.
    – cmw
    Aug 15, 2022 at 13:38
  • @cmw Thanks! I updated the answer. I'm far from an expert on musical instruments, so not messing it up at all would have been a surprise...
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Aug 15, 2022 at 13:49
  • 2
    If it's seen as a foreign word, I could also see uculelē alternating with uculela, like nymphē~nympha.
    – Draconis
    Aug 15, 2022 at 15:41
  • @Draconis I considered that, and I wouldn't be surprised of that use either. But I decided not to bring it up, as I don't remember that Greek version being used with words of non-Greek origin. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, though.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Aug 15, 2022 at 16:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.