Most instances of vv in Latin seem to fall into three categories:

  • It's in the combination qvu or ngvu, as in eqvus, pronounced /u/
  • It's actually vu, a consonant followed by a vowel, as in parvus
  • It's actually uu, two vowels in a row, as in metuunt

How were these latter two pronounced in Classical Latin? I generally pronounce the second /wu/, and the third /uʔu/, but the glottal stop feels somewhat artificial.

  • Good question! As a Finn, I don't find the glottal stop artificial, but as a Finn I might also argue that voiced stops are artificial, so take it with a bigger-than-average grain of salt... I wonder if there is any evidence left to differentiate between, say, /uʔu/ and /uwu/ for the third case in classical pronunciation. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 7 '17 at 15:49
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    Regarding the glottal stop, two (possibly contradicting) ideas: i) Romance languages are not fans of it (like I think Germanic languages are), although it happens, ii) I wonder how mihi and nihil got to be pronounced ['mi.ki] and ['ni.kil] at some point in Ecclesiastical Latin, and whether the glottal position of the /h/ (nonexistent in Italian) was involved at some stage of the sound change. FWIW, I pronounce vocalic uu as [u.u] (separate syllables), but even if it is right, it would most probably be so in Ecclesiastical. – Rafael Sep 7 '17 at 16:19
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    As far as the glottal stop, I agree with Rafael - there's a tendency with English (and probably other Germanic speakers - and I gather Finnish) to break the hiatus with a glottal stop, but I know of no reason to suspect that was done by Latin speakers, and evidence of the Romance languages argues against this. (I've heard English speakers do the same thing in Greek, referring e.g. to "the verb ποιέω" as [poɪˈɛʔoː], which I believe is equally wrong.) – varro Sep 7 '17 at 17:44
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    @Rafael: As far ['mi.ki] and ['ni.kil] for mihi and nihil, I have a theory (but no more than a theory) about this, but I don't think it will fit into a comment. (Fermat strikes again!) – varro Sep 7 '17 at 17:58

Based on the phonetics of Romance languages, many of which show glides matching the frontness or backness of the preceding vowel between vowels that were in hiatus in Latin (discussed in "The Development of Latin Hiatus Groups in the Romance Languages", by Gail Keith Meadows, 1948, an article that Draconis linked to in an answer to this Linguistics SE question: Etymologically, why is there a v in “Giovanni”) it seems likely that Latin speakers had a [w]-like gliding transition between /u/ and a following vowel in hiatus rather than a glottal stop transition. That said, I don't know of any clear evidence that absolutely rules out the use of glottal stops to separate vowels in Latin.

One other thing that is relevant is that in certain time periods, at least, Classical Latin thought to have had a distinction in quality as well as quantity between long /iː, uː/, realized as high [iː, uː], and and short /i, u/ realized as [ɪ, ʊ]. We have evidence for this in the usual Proto-Romance reflexes of Latin /iː, uː/ as *i, *u vs. the usual reflexes of Latin /i, u/ as *e, *o. I believe there is also some evidence from Roman descriptions of the sounds of Latin, and there is some possible historical support also in that /u/ and /i/ in Classical Latin are often the result of vowel-reduction sound changes. (There is also evidence for the mid vowels having distinct qualities, /e, o/ [ɛ, ɔ] vs. /eː, oː/ [eː, oː], past a certain point—sorry, I forget the timeline.)

There is speculation that metrically short vowels preceding other vowels were however realized with a quality closer to the quality of a long vowel. Meadows in fact wrote article about this topic: "Hiatus and Vocalic Quality in Classical and Vulgar Latin". I believe it is also mentioned in Allen's Vox Latina.

So "parvus" may have been pronounced [ˈparwʊs], and "metuunt" may have been pronounced something like [ˈmɛtuʊnt], [ˈmɛtʊwʊnt] or [ˈmɛtuwʊnt].

As Alex B points out in the comments, we have evidence that in some varieties of speech vowels that were orginally in hiatus sometimes came to be separated by a glide that wasn't homorganic to the preceding vowel; Meadows mentions evidence for this phenomenon in Romance languages and also mentions other kinds of non-glide epenthetic consonants like r in "afiree" for "afiee" ("promised") in Old French or d in Lombard (example: füdess < CL fuissem). I don't know if people have identified any regular patterns for epenthesis of that sort in Classical Latin.

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    It could be a little more complicated than that (cf. parum) and then we have Appedix Probi with avus, flavus, rivus - ais, flaus, rius (see Niederman). – Alex B. Mar 7 '18 at 14:14

As a Portuguese speaker and with some knowledge of Latin, I can tell that there is no glottal stop in the first two examples because the first "u" is always a semi-vowel. If there were a glottal stop there, it would mean that there were two vowels in a row. All those two cases have no hiatus but crescent diphthongs. In the last case, that is the 3rd person plural of "metuo", I don't think a glottal stop would be correct either. It was pronounced with a long "u" and it probably sounded like "metuwunt" and "metuwo".

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    Welcome to the site! Do you happen to have any sources to back up the statements? – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 5 '18 at 11:53
  • The "u" in metuo doesn't seem to have scanned as a long vowel. When you say "it was pronounced with a long 'u'", are you just talking about the vowel quality, or something like that (e.g. [ˈmɛtuwʊnt])? – Asteroides Feb 12 '18 at 23:20
  • I was talking about the length ("duration") since in latin vowels were either long or short. What I was trying to say is that the concept of a glottal stop was alien to Latin. It was probably pronounced with an unwritten glide between the two 'u's. – Bruno Della Motta Mar 16 '18 at 4:23
  • Like in Sumelic answer above. But this "classical pronunciation" really sucks. No one has spoken Latin this way for more than two millennia (if spoke at all). This was an academicist reconstruction during a time people was trying to defy the church and, because of that, they argued against the ecclesiastical pronunciation (and I'm not saying that to defend the church for I am not religious; I'm just saying that because the "classical pronunciation" sound alien, aesthetically ugly and pedantic. Say "parvus!" with a 'v' sound). – Bruno Della Motta Mar 16 '18 at 4:28

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