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The letter V in Classical Latin was pronounced as /w/, unless another V came after it, in which case it'd be pronounced /wu/.

Considering this, what would be the need to use both v and u in the same word?

Eg. venus, adiuvo, vulgus

Why couldn't these be written instead as venvs, adivvo, vvlgvs or uenus, adiuuo, uulgus?

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They certainly could be! In Classical times, there was no distinction between the letters V and U (or between I and J). The name "Venus" would be written in inscriptions as VENVS.

However, there was a difference in pronunciation: sometimes the letter V represented /w/, and sometimes /u/. And those pronunciations stayed distinct in the Romance languages, leading to the difference between modern "u" and "v".

So modern editors typically show this distinction by writing the consonant as "V" and the vowel as "U", and similarly for the consonant "J" and the vowel "I" (though for some reason editors are now going back to using "I" for both: "adiuvo" instead of my preferred "adjuvo").

One exception to the rule, in modern editions, is that "U" is typically used after "Q" (even though there was no /u/ vowel there). So we see "equus" instead of the expected "eqvus" (compare "flavus").

  • Interesting; so, is graduum (gen. pl.) two syllables or three? Should it ideally be gradvum? – Hugh Apr 27 '18 at 1:34
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    @Hugh I believe it had three, in fact! See latin.stackexchange.com/a/6077/406 – Draconis Apr 27 '18 at 3:34
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    @Hugh It is three, and it is actually not exceptional. There is a number of words ending in -uus with two short vowels U and verbs ending in -uere have the form -uunt. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 27 '18 at 18:36
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There is no need to have two separate symbols U and V. The distinction between the two is relatively new; the Romans seemed to treat them as the same letter, and especially in inscriptions it is always V. So yes, the words could well be written as you suggest, and to an extent were written like that. The same applies to the letters I and J.

While it is not strictly necessary to use U or J, it is convenient. U and I are pronounced differently in different contexts (sometimes vowel, sometimes consonant), and it can be useful to signal the type of pronunciation to the reader.

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