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I'm interested in the proper Classical pronunciation of the word 'ait'. I've been pronouncing it as 'ate', /eɪt/.

Should it instead be pronounced as /a.it/ or even /aɪ.it/? What evidence is there suggesting how classical Romans would have pronounced it?

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Metric analysis of classical poetry is enough to show that both vowels are short and belong to two different syllables.

Consider Vergilius's Aeneis I.595:

improvisus ait: 'Coram, quem quaeritis, adsum

To be able to read this as a hexameter verse, ait must be pronounced as two syllables, the first of which is short. This is not an isolated example, but I only chose to give one.

Given that the ending -it is generally pronounced with a short 'i' (see e.g. verse 45 in the cited source), we have a good reason to believe that also the 'i' is short. And since we already know that there are two syllables, the verse 142 shows that the 'i' must be short in ait.

Rhythmic considerations alone will not tell about the exact phonetic values of the vowels. This question on ancient pronunciation might be a good starting point with such finer details.

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Allen & Greenough address the pronunciation of this verb, §206:

The vowels a and i are pronounced separately (a-is, a-it) except sometimes in old or colloquial Latin.

Thus, the correct classical pronunciation would be two syllables, with a short a (as in ago) and short i (as in hit).


As for evidence: In Vox Latina, page 39, W. Sydney Allen cites this word in his discussion on the dissimilation associated with the i-consonant, which is attested by "Quintilian and other grammarians" and inscriptions. The short version is that spelling was simplified: ait stands for aiiit, with a double i-consonant resulting in a heavy first syllable. Similarly, reicit, standing for reiiicit, is a three-syllable word.

  • Thanks for the info about the relation between the spelling and everyday speech! I'd been wondering a long time how strong was the pressure to smear the vowels into a diphthong. Apparently, not strong until that iii faded. Does the long version say anything about the common use of the first syllable of ait in poetry where a light syllable is needed? – Ben Kovitz Feb 25 '16 at 16:58
  • @BenKovitz Unfortunately, it doesn't. The amount of the long version that directly addresses ait and reicit is unfortunately not all that long; he prefers to examine a number of different types of i-consonant behavior, of which this is only one. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 25 '16 at 17:03
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It ain't "ate", that's for sure.

Some evidence that it's two syllables, /ˈa.it/, comes from poetry, when ait appears in places where two syllables are needed to fit the meter. For example, this is from book VI of the Aeneid:

Ventum ad līmen erat, cum virgō "poscere fāta
tempus" ait; "deus, ecce deus!" Cui tālia fantī
ante forēs subitō nōn vultus, nōn color ūnus…

("They had come to the threshold when the virgin said 'It's time to summon fate. A god, behold, a god!' Suddenly, neither the face nor one color … of the one speaking this way in front of the doors …")

These lines are hexameter, the pattern of which requires that ait, in that sentence, be a two-syllable word with the first syllable "light" (a syllable ending in a short vowel, in this case ă). Rather than explaining hexameter in full, I'll just mark the breaks between feet with a slash:

Vent’‿ad / līmen‿e/rat, cum / virgō / "poscere / fāta
tempus"‿a/it; "deus,‿/ecce de/us!" Cui / tālia / fantī
ante fo/rēs subi/tō nōn / vultus, / nōn color‿/ūnus…

Each foot in hexameter must start with a heavy syllable (a syllable with either a long vowel or that ends in a consonant that doesn't begin the next syllable). There's one elided vowel, which I marked with an apostrophe, and I marked "conjoined syllables" with a tie. You should see that each foot starts with a heavy syllable, and one of those is the second syllable of ait.

As for how sloppily people actually said ait in everyday speech, though, I have no idea. Maybe someone more knowledgeable about colloquial classical Latin can provide some information about that.

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