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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. Feb 28 '16 at 22:10
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    "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
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    Actually the letter V stands for three phonemes: /w/, /u/. and /u:/.
    – fdb
    Aug 26 '21 at 8:53
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The best way we know that consonantal V was pronounced as /w/ is from transcriptions of Latin words in other languages. For example, the Roman name Valerius is transcribed as Ουαλεριος (Oualerios) in Greek inscriptions. Greeks did not have a /w/ sound, but if you pronounce ου (ou) plus a vowel 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/ (as it is in Modern Greek).

The standard reference for pronunciation of Latin and Greek is W. Sydney Allen's two volumes, Vox Latina and Vox Graeca, and they're both worth checking out as a starting point if you're interested in the topic.

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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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I think the best evidence is outlined by cmw's answer about transcriptions into Greek.

However, even just looking at Latin itself, the distribution of Latin consonantal V makes it fairly obvious that it was "originally" [w]. It's harder to find out from the language-internal evidence when the sound passed from [w] to [v]: much of the evidence I discuss below is consistent with this happening either late or early, since patterns in the distribution of sounds may lag sound changes (for comparison, present-day Russian [v], which is likewise from [w], still shows some behavior that is made easier to explain by the earlier value; likewise, Sanskrit va continues to pattern as a semivowel corresponding to u even though it had developed a labiodental pronunciation already in Panini's time).

The use of [w] in distantly etymologically related English words supports the reconstruction of [w] in the common ancestor that English and Latin share, Proto-Indo-European.

Evidence in Latin etymology that V derives from original [w]

Aside from V and U sharing the same spelling, there are a number of fairly regular alternations involving these two sounds in etymologically related words inside Latin. For example:

  • "av" before vowels vs. "au" before consonants, as in avis vs. auspex (noted in a comment below by Draconis)
  • "u" before a single vowel vs. "uv" before i + another vowel, as in fluo vs. fluvius
  • "av" in a word-initial syllable vs "u" in a word-internal syllable, as in lavo vs. abluo
  • "-uus" and "-vus" are variant forms of the same suffix

The V sound found in the above words was likely originally [w], because [w] and [u] are more similar and more likely to change into one another than [v] and [u].

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.

Of course, once these patterns of alternation had been established, they could be maintained or extended to new pairs of words even after the sound change of [w] to [v].

For information on dating the change of [w] to [v], see the following question: When did the consonant U (i.e., V) begin to be pronounced as the fricative [v] instead of [w]?

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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
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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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    @Draconis. This is a bad example. <V> is a consonant/semivowel both is AVIS and in AVSPEX.
    – fdb
    Aug 26 '21 at 8:51

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