We know that the final m was not a full consonant in classical Latin, but denoted nasalization and elongation of the preceding vowel. See this or this old question for more details. Was this effect limited to word-final position, or did an internal m nasalize the preceding vowel as well?

For example, how were sumus, summus, amplecti, sumpsisti pronounced? I would assume m had a fully consonantal nature between two vowels to avoid hiatus, but that does not rule out nasalization. There seems to be more freedom as the first consonant of a consonant cluster. For example, perhaps summus could be [sũ:mus] instead of the pronunciation [sum:us] I was taught. Sometimes the vowel before a consonant cluster beginning with m is already long (eg. sūmpsistī), which makes the combination of nasalization and elongation sound unlikely. The vowel before a final m is always short as far as I know — when m is pronounced as a consonant.

  • The first example that comes to mind is "consul" abbreviated "COS", but that's an N. Would you consider it relevant to the question? – Draconis Nov 13 '16 at 4:20
  • @Draconis, that is an N, but it's still relevant. If word-internal nasalization did happen and M causes word-final nasalization, we have a good reason to believe that M might cause internal nasalization as well. – Joonas Ilmavirta Nov 13 '16 at 8:42
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    @C.M.Weimer Even though the answer is most likely yes, Allen writes about word-final m. – Alex B. Nov 14 '16 at 5:15
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Sampson 1999 summarizes research on nasalization of vowels in Latin:

"there is every reason for believing that in the history of Latin significant vowel nasality, allophonic and perhaps even phonemic, may well have been found at different times, in different places, and with different sociolinguisic significance" (p. 42).

Researchers don't entirely agree on its phonetic environment though.

For example, Sen 2015 claims that "[v]owels preceding nasals in Latin nasalized" (p. 72). Clackson 2008 writes that nasalized vowels in Latin were inherently long and occurred in two positions only: word-final and before a nasal+continuant (p. 77).

There are some dissenting voices out there. For instance, Marotta 1999 argues that "the evidence for postulating long nasalized vowels in Latin does not seem to be strong enough" (p. 289).

Since there are no audio recordings of Classical Latin (obviously!), all we can assume is that vowels before a nasal stop were most likely nasalized.

I wouldn't worry about making a special effort to pronounce vowels nasalized before an m since it should happen automatically in such contexts. It'd be hard not to utter a nasalized vowel before a nasal consonant anyway.

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    all we can assume is that vowels before a nasal stop were most likely nasalized -- but only before a coda nasal, right? I don't think there's any evidence for nasalization before a nasal that's the onset of the following syllable, as in sumus. – TKR Nov 15 '16 at 18:22
  • @TKR my gut reaction (and experience) is to agree with you. But I just looked it up and saw cases of regressive nasalization (?). In particular, one paper mentioned that in Brazilian Portuguese banana, the first syllable can be bã or ba. – Alex B. Nov 15 '16 at 19:05
  • I don't mean such nasalization is impossible, only that it would be surprising if there was evidence for it in Latin (what would such evidence look like?). – TKR Nov 15 '16 at 19:11

A pronunciation like [sũːmʊs] for summus in Classical Latin seems rather unlikely considering that the Italian reflex is sommo [somːo] and not [suːmo].

As far as I know, the letter M in Latin is thought to have represented the consonant /m/ in any position but word-final. So sumus, summus, amplecti, sumpsisti are something like [sʊmʊs], [sʊmːʊs], [amplɛktiː], [suːmpsɪstiː]. It seems plausible that the vowels preceding [m] in these words were pronounced with some amount of phonetic nasalization, but this kind of "nasal vowel" wouldn't have been phonologically distinct from a regular Latin vowel phoneme: the presence of nasalization here would be entirely predictable from the phonological context (as is the case for vowel nasalization in present-day English, which isn't normally marked in phonetic transcriptions). As far as I know, we don't have any actual evidence that these vowels were nasalized.

The (possible) presence of nasal vowels in word-final position, or before voiceless fricatives, is notable because we have evidence that the nasal consonants that originally conditioned the nasality of the vowels may have been lost in these two contexts, with "compensatory" lengthening of the vowel. We have clear evidence of the lengthening of vowels before nf and ns, and fairly clear evidence of the possible loss of n before f or s and of m in word-final position (particularly before a vowel). My understanding is that the existence of distinctively nasal long vowels in Latin (as opposed to non-nasal long vowels, or vowel + nasal consonant sequences) is mostly an inference, not something that we have clear evidence for (and so, as Alex B.'s answer mentions, it is a bit controversial).

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