According to a consensus of Latin scholars, the letter V in ancient Latin was pronounced as [w]. This seems to make sense, because there was no distinguishing between V and U, so the letter V could mark either the vowel [u] or its semivocalic counterpart [w] (much like with the letter I).

Is there any other evidence for this pronunciation? I saw some people challenging this view, so I would like to hear about some more evidence.

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    I seem to recall a story involving "figs" (cauneas) being confused for "beware of leaving" (cave ne eas). – brianpck Feb 23 '16 at 19:38
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    @brianpck You recall your Cicero well. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 28 '16 at 22:10
  • "I saw some people challenging this view" - whom did you have in mind? imho most Latinists agree on this. – Alex B. Dec 27 '18 at 3:11

The best way we know how consonantal V being pronounce as /w/ is in transcriptions into other languages. For example, the Roman name Valerius is transcribed as Ουαλεριος (Ooalerios) in Greek inscriptions. Greeks did not have a /w/ sound, but if you pronounce ου (ou) quickly enough, you get an approximate to it. You do not, though, get close to /v/.

Incidentally, we also know when the sound shifted, as later transcriptions have Βαλεριος, where the Greek beta had turned into a /v/.

The standard reference for how we know how to pronounce Greek is W. Sidney Allen's Vox Graeca (3rd ed. Cambridge, 1987).

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W. Sydney Allen, in Vox Latina, page 41, gives several examples that support the [w] pronunciation of the consonantal u in Classical Latin.

The first example appears in the writings of Nigidius Figulus (Gellius, x, 4, 4), in which he apparently equates the lip position of the consonant and vowel sounds:

in a discussion of the origins of language, he points out that in the words tu and uos the lips are protruded in the direction of the person addressed, whereas this is not the case in ego and nos

A second example comes from Cicero (Div, ii, 84), where he equates the sounds of Cauneas and Caue ne eas, which would only make sense if the u of caue was similar to that of Cauneas.

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Internal etymological reconstruction, as well as spelling, supports the connection of V with the vowel U in Latin, and comparative etymology shows that [v] in Latin corresponds to [w] in English. Phonetic considerations make it more plausible to suppose that the value [w] came first, and Latin [v] developed from [w].

These considerations don't tell us when [w] would have changed to [v] (except that English provides evidence that it happened after the split between the ancestors of English and Latin). So this isn't an argument for [w] being the value of V in "ancient Latin", just in some stage of the language that eventually developed to Latin.

The sound [u] is phonetically categorized as a "close back rounded vowel": "rounded" refers to the shape of the lips, which are brought together (there is a bit of variation between languages in the exact position of the lips). The sound [w] is pronounced mostly the same as [u], differing mainly in being non-syllabic. The sound [v] is further distinguished from [u] in several respects: 1) it is "labiodental", being pronounced with the lower lip against the upper teeth; 2) it has greater constriction than both [u] and [w], being categorized as a "fricative" consonant; 3) it lacks a "back" component.

Therefore, it is easier to explain alternation between [v] and [u] in Latin if we suppose that it was previously an alternation between [w] and [u], which are more similar to each other.

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  • I don't understand your last paragraph -- what "alternation between [v] and [u] in Latin" do you mean? – TKR Dec 25 '18 at 21:26
  • @TKR: there are various examples of v-u alternation from Latin verb conjugation, as in solvo, solūtum, or with the compound naufragium from navis – Asteroides Dec 25 '18 at 22:40
  • I don't think etymology is a good proof. English also has dissolve, dissolution where /v/ alternates with /u/. It could equally likely be the case that Latin *v derives from /w/ but was pronounced as /v/ at any given point in time (as is indeed the case in later Latin and its descendants) – b a Dec 26 '18 at 1:13
  • @ba: English "dissolve, dissolution" are loans. It's true that this argument doesn't provide any dates, which I had considered saying explicitly but ended up leaving out. When I wrote this answer, I was mainly thinking about what to say to somebody who wasn't convinced that Latin [v] had ever been pronounced as [w]--whether during the time period when we call the language "Latin" or in some earlier ancestor. – Asteroides Dec 26 '18 at 3:31
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    My favorite example for this alternation is av- "bird" + spic- "observe" = au-spic- "augur". There's ample evidence that the v is a consonant in avis and a vowel in auspex, as both are well-attested words. – Draconis Dec 26 '18 at 5:55

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