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I am curious to know if, and how, a Roman could ask the spelling of a word. Though Latin is phonetic, I can imagine cases (for instance with Greek loan words, double letters, or nasalized vowels) where a Roman might want to check before chiseling on a monument. The first thing that comes to my mind is:

Quomodo scribitur?

Any classical sources talking about how to spell something would also be helpful.

1 Answer 1


Quintilian uses the phrase quomodo scribitur in Institutio Oratoria, Book I, 4, 11 (accessed via Perseus) in discussing doubling of vowels in a word. He is not using it as a direct question, but the phrase seems amenable for that purpose.

quaeret hoc etiam, quomodo duabus demum vocalibus in se ipsas coeundi natura sit, cum consonantium nulla nisi alteram frangat. atqui littera I sibi insidit, coniicit enim est ab illo iacit, et V, quomodo nunc scribitur uulgus et seruus. sciat etiam Ciceroni placuisse aiio Maiiamque geminata I scribere; quod si est, etiam iungetur ut consonans.

The following excerpt from Suetonius about Augustus and his spelling habits based on pronunciation is fascinating. Note the definition of orthography in the first sentence. This suggests that the Romans noticed and commented on spelling errors.

(from the Loeb Library edition in public domain)

88 Orthographiam, id est formulam rationemque scribendi a grammaticis institutam, non adeo custodit ac videtur eorum potius sequi opinionem, qui perinde scribendum ac loquamur existiment. Nam quod saepe non litteras modo sed syllabas aut permutat aut praeterit, communis hominum error est. Nec ego id notarem, nisi mihi mirum videretur tradidisse aliquos, legato eum consulari successorem dedisse ut rudi et indocto, cuius manu "ixi" pro "ipsi" scriptum animadverterit. Quotiens autem per notas scribit, B pro A, C pro B ac deinceps eadem ratione sequentis litteras ponit; pro X autem duplex A.

This article about an embarrassing spelling mistake in an inscription (a modern S for a Greek sigma, Σ) on a new Classics building at Cambridge University in 2010 makes your point quite nicely about checking twice before using the chisel.


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