In English writing, there are certain conventions for representing foreign accents. For example, a French character could replace all of zeir TH's wiz Z's, while an Italian might-a add-a short-a vowels to all-a their words, a German vould svap V's vith W's, ja? and a Japanese might assimirate their riquids.

In other words—exaggerating certain stereotypical features, as a cue to the reader to fill in the rest. When I see Z's replacing TH's in words, I also imagine the uvular "r", nasal vowels, and ultima stress of a thick French accent, even though the author didn't mention those.

Does anything similar appear in Latin literature? Is there some particular type of error that authors would use to indicate a foreign accent?

NB: I'm looking for spelling or grammar variation used intentionally by the authors, and specifically to suggest foreign-ness or non-native speech.

  • 1
    I think the term you are looking for is Eye dialect: imitating accents using non-standard spelling. – brianpck Nov 3 '16 at 20:31
  • 1
    @brianpck My understanding was that "eye dialect" referred to misspellings which don't change pronunciation (such as "wuz" and "sed" for "was" and "said") used to indicate a character's lack of education. In other words, a character's spoken dialogue is spelled the way they might spell it. Whereas what I'm going for here is spelling changes which actually reflect the accent. Is the term generally used differently? – Draconis Nov 3 '16 at 20:52
  • You're right...my mistake! – brianpck Nov 3 '16 at 20:53

Similar things do occur in Latin literature, though I know of none that were part of a general tendency of the kind in which you are interested.

There are well-known illustrations of snobbery, some of which involve foreigners. Catullus LXXXIV, for example, is a witty offering about misplaced aitches, beginning Chommoda dicebat, si quando commode vellet / dicere, et hinsidias Arrius insidias. Vespasian, who according to his biographers was not alone in this, persisted in pronouncing plaustrum as plostrum, the old pronunciation echoing the change from Clodius (e.g. referring to the intruder in the Bona Dea ritual that induced Caesar to divorce his then wife) to Claudius. Even later, Juvenal complains of "the Orontes pouring its filth into the Tiber", in a general complaint about the destruction of the way of life at Rome by streams of immigrants (one might say that plus ca change!).

For what it's worth, my own view is that stereotyping must have been unavoidable. Ridicule by mimicry is, after all, hardly a modern phenomenon, and the Romans were not known for holding back from scoffing at the ineptitude of others, especially those of different backgrounds.

It's an interesting question that you ask. When the great analysts/commentators, such as Donatus and Priscian, were expounding the grammar of Latin, they must surely have noticed such eccentricities of pronunciation. I don't know their works well enough, however (well, hardly at all, in truth), to give you any guidance: maybe someone else here can help.


Both Donatus and Quintillian have chapters in which they describe barbarisms, though the examples areshort, sometimes only one or two words.

Donatus: Ars Major, translated Jim Marchand (pdf) lists four types(sic) of mispronunciation and bad usage: adiectio, detractio, inmutatio/ transmutatio litterae, syllabae, temporis (= vowel length) toni, adspirationis.

Examples of each are given, but not enough to create a character,

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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