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I noticed that on Wiktionary and on Wikipedia it says that the "U" in Urbs was pronounced as "ʊ". I thought that Latin didn't have these kinds of lax vowels? Wouldn't it be pronounced as [u] instead of as [ʊ]?

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Phonemically and historically speaking, the distinction between u and ū seems to have been solely one of length. When you lengthen a u (like before /ns/), you get a ū; when you shorten a ū (like before /nt/), you get a u. In Sardinian, the first Romance language to split off the family tree, u and ū merged. So it must have originally been something like [u].

In terms of Classical-era phonetics, though, it seems u was significantly lower than ū—in fact, closer in quality to ō than to u! When Latin names are transcribed into Greek, u is transcribed with ο (e.g. Mummius who sacked Corinth becomes Μόμμιος in Greek sources). And when vowel length was lost in Vulgar Latin, u and ō merged, while ū and o remained separate from the pair.

As a result, [ʊ] is the most common way of transcribing u phonetically. We may not be sure of the exact pronunciation, but we know it was derived from [u], and closer to [o] than to [u].

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  • This link also gives "incipit" as an example for [ɪ], surely that's a lot more dubious? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/Latin
    – Nomad1004
    Aug 18, 2023 at 3:07
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    @Nomad1004 Just as ō and u merged in Romance, so did ē and i, in fact! So it seems short i was also closer to ē in quality than to ī.
    – Draconis
    Aug 18, 2023 at 3:14

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