This wonderful book, Doctrina Copularum Linguæ Latinæ Sive De Vi Atque Usu Elegantiori Particularum AC, ATQUE, ET, -QUE Deque Earum Formulis, Commentarius by Henry Ellis Allen, A.B., published in 1830,* contains accents galore. What do they mean? Why are some vowels given an accent and others not? What's the difference in meaning between the accent grave and the circumflex? Is this system named or documented anywhere? I haven't been able to infer any simple rules other than that the diæresis indicates that two consecutive vowels should be pronounced as separate syllables rather than as a diphthong.

Here are some examples.

Nimirùm, ac est ipsum atque decurtatum.

The first two vowels in nimirùm are long and the ù is short, so there goes the theory that the accent grave marks a long vowel.

Copulativè ac et atque in iis ferè rebus adhibentur, quæ, naturâ quaddamodò conjunctæ, facilè ac lubenter inter se congruant consentiantque; cùm et et que, rerum delectu omni omisso, aurium arbitrium ponantur.

Could the circumflex mean only a long vowel that marks the ablative case?

“Quârè moneo vos, adolescentes, atque hoc meo jure præcipio.—” Cic. pro Sext. 23.

Apparently not.

“Hîc, ne quid mihi prorogetur, quod ne intercessor quidem sustinere possit, horreo; atque eò magis, quòd tu abes, qui consilio, gratiâ, multis rebus occurreres.” Cic. ad Att. v. 21.

Notice that one quod has an accent and the other doesn't.

*Thanks to Tom Cotton for bringing it to my attention.

1 Answer 1


This has been referred to as the Neo-Latin Orthography. An example of a grammar written with this type of orthography is An Introduction to the Latin Tongue by G. N. Wright.

Concerning the use of these diacritics, the following is from a dissertation, "Accent Notation in the Classical Languages and its Influence on Lithuanian Accent Notation" by Mindaugas Strockis:

  • The archaic genitive singular -ās of the ā-stems (the first declension) is marked with a circumflex: aurâs, Majâs, paterfamiliâs, materfamiliâs, in imitation of Greek gen. sg. -ᾶς.

  • The genitive singular of the u-stems (the fourth declension) is marked with a circumflex, such as domûs, as if in imitation of the Greek εὐτυχοῦς, Σαπφοῦς, αἰδοῦς or similar.

  • The nominative singular -ūs of the Greek names ending in -οῦς in the original, is also written with a circumflex: Trapezûs, Hierichûs.

  • The genitive plural ending -um (= -ōrum) was written with a circumflex mark, such as deûm (versus unmarked acc. sg. deum), in imitation of the Greek gen. pl. ending -ῶν.

  • The genitive partitive of the personal pronouns nos, vos was marked with circumflex: nostrûm, vestrûm (versus unmarked acc. sg. masc. and nom./acc. sg. neuter of the possessive nostrum, vestrum), in imitation of Greek ἡµῶν, ὑµῶν.

  • The ablative singular of the ā-stems (the first declension) was marked with a circumflex: linguâ, Româ, versus unmarked nom. sg. lingua, Roma. This particular case is likely to have been indirectly influenced (or at least a posteriori justified) by Quintilian’s teaching (1.7.3) about the usage of the apex mark.

  • Sometimes the explicative diacritic of the humanist Latin orthography coincided with the actual word accent: nostrâs, Samnîs, which, according to Roman grammarians, could have been accented on the last syllable.

  • The grave mark on the last syllable was often used to distinguish adverbs, prepositions, and some other, usually indeclinable (Steenbakkers 1994, Burkard 2003), words: maximè (adverb) versus maxime (vocative), cùm (conjunction) versus cum (preposition), verò (conjunction) versus vero (dat./abl. sg.), quòd (conjunction) versus quod (pronoun) etc. For the logic of such orthography, compare also Quintilian’s mention (1.5.26) of the oxytonesis of auxiliary words, and the Greek oxytonic grave, especially frequent in prepositions (ἀνὰ, κατὰ, µετὰ, ὑπὸ etc).

  • Various humanist grammarians proposed also other orthographic rules to distinguish homographs, such as to mark the accent on the penultimate syllable according to the Greek third mora rule, such as to write lăbor and lābor respectively lábor and lâbor, or to write pône (imperative of a verb) but ponè (preposition).

  • Sometimes contracted or syncopated word forms were written with a circumflex (dî = dii, nîl = nihil, mî = mihi, nôrat = noverat, etc.) in imitation of the Greek contracted forms with the circumflex from the first mora accent: νόος > νοῦς, φάος > φῶς etc.

  • The system of explicative diacritics in Latin orthography was abandoned between 18th and early 19th centuries.

Edit note: When I first posted this, I referred to this as the "Humanistic Latin Orthography" as Strockis called it. However, I later came across the following remark by Piet Steenbakkers:

"With hindsight we can perceive that it was humanistic research into classical Latin which brought about the downfall of this unhistorical orthography. The movement ad fontes and the scrutiny of ancient inscriptions made humanists keenly aware of the examples they had to follow in reforming their spelling and pronunciation of Latin."

Since the humanists led to the demise of this orthography, I felt it was better to use Steenbakkers' designation, "Neo-Latin Orthography."

  • 1
    Wow. This explains everything. I had no idea that I'd stumbled onto a footprint left by the Renaissance revival of classical Latin. I can see how this wouldn't "stick": there are too many reasonable incompatible choices.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 18:14
  • Strockis referred to these as "explicative diacritics". Although it's a complex system, I can see how it could clarify ambiguities in some cases. Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 18:30
  • It just hit me that spelling it octopûs under this system (like Trapezûs) might indeed suggest that the plural is octopodes, not octopi.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 19:01
  • 1
    Quæstionem novam habemus! :)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 1:40
  • 1
    Like Expedito Bipes said, ὀκτώπους ends in -ους (not -οῦς), so in Latin it would end in -us (not -ûs). Opus is a Latin word ending in a short -us, with genitive operis, while Octōpūs is from Greek, ends in long -ūs, and its genitive is Octōpodis
    – Jasper May
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 9:06

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