32

A quick Google Search says plenty of things about Roman Latin pronunciation, and since it's an edu domain I'm inclined to believe it. However, the closest to citing a source it gets is saying "we know from grammarians"; it doesn't say anything specific.

How do we know how Romans pronounced Latin?

  • 1
    I've always had this question. The best explanation I once got was, that they had pronunciations examples with greek words in their grammarians. I'm not sure whether this person made this just up... – idmean Feb 23 '16 at 20:32
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    I first read this title as "How do we know the Romans spoke Latin?" and had to click through to read the question. :-) – msh210 Feb 23 '16 at 21:14
29

A standard work in this area is Vox Latina, by W. Sidney Allen. The author answers your question in his foreword, identifying 6 types of evidence:

  1. specific statements of Latin grammarians and other authors regarding the pronunciation of the language;
  2. puns, plays on words, ancient etymologies, and imitations of natural sounds;
  3. the representation of Latin words in other languages;
  4. developments in the Romance languages;
  5. the spelling conventions of Latin, and particularly scribal or epigraphic variations; and
  6. the internal structure of the Latin language itself, including its metrical patterns.

The evidence for some sounds, of course, will be stronger than for others:

The degree of accuracy, with which we can reconstruct the ancient pronunciation varies from sound to sound, but for the most part can be determined within quite narrow limits.

Briefly, here are examples of each of these six points from Allen's work:

  1. Latin grammarians. Prominent rhetoricians and grammarians instructed their students in proper pronunciation. For example, Cicero described the pronunciation of the diagraph ch, and Priscian and Velius Longus attempted to explain the sound of the final -m.
  2. Plays on words. Cicero gives a frequently cited example of this, providing evidence that v was pronounced as [w], when 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.
  3. Word borrowing. Latin shared vocabulary with Greek and other languages, with both languages borrowing from each other. The letters used in transcriptions of these words give clues into the Latin sounds. For example, evidence for n being pronounced as [ŋ] before certain consonants comes from transcriptions from Latin to Greek and vice versa.
  4. Romance languages. The development of Romance languages like Spanish from Vulgar Latin is sometimes helpful with respect to pronunciation. For example, the relative lack of aspiration in voiceless stops (p, t, c, qu) is suggested by the lack of aspiration of these stops in Romance languages.
  5. Spelling. The conventions and variations of Latin spelling provide helpful pronunciation clues in a number of cases. For example, thanks to widespread spelling confusion, we can trace changes in the pronunciation of the u-consonant back to the first century. Similarly, inscriptional evidence is used to establish the length of vowels before “gn”?.
  6. Structure and meter. The meter of Latin poetry is particularly helpful in ascertaining the lengths of vowels, such as in determining the correct pronunciation of the names of the letters of the alphabet.
  • 1
    "puns, plays on words, ancient etymologies, and imitations of natural sounds;" Interesting, and entirely sensible. Does the author go on to specify how narrow those limits are? (I'd read your link but I'm on mobile ATM and Google Books seems to be optimized for being bad on mobile) – Nic Hartley Feb 23 '16 at 20:35
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    @QPaysTaxes This particular book doesn't get into the details too often, except where there is significant disagreement; he points readers to less accessible scholarly works on the respective points. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 23 '16 at 20:39
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    It's been a while since I've read Allen, but does he include misspelled graffiti in "epigraphic variations"? That's my favorite source. – Joel Derfner Feb 23 '16 at 22:57
  • @JoelDerfner I haven't found any specific examples of that yet, but I wouldn't be surprised. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 24 '16 at 3:08
  • I find this fascinating, as I was taught "Church" Latin at school. I can just about cope with Kikero for Cicero etc, but, starting again 50 years later, still struggle with weeny, weedy, weeky for veni, vidi, vici! ;) – TheHonRose Mar 12 '16 at 0:51
15

An important source of information is comparison to other languages.

For example, Cicero was spelled as Κικέρων1 in Greek. If we believe that the Greek kappa was pronounced as /k/ rather than /s/ or /ts/ or anything else, we can be confident that c was pronounced as /k/ in Latin as well — at least in this name.

Similarly, the name Caesar gave rise to the present German word Kaiser. The loan was, as far as I know, made in the ancient times. If we know something about how the pronunciation of German(ic languages) evolved, we know something more about how Caesar pronounced his name.


1 Thanks to chirlu (see comments) for the correct Greek accent and the final nu. I don't know if the final nu was used in all occasions, but that is besides the point.

  • 5
    Oh, that makes sense, but it raises another question: How do we know how Ancient Greek is pronounced? I'd assume that's mostly by parallel with modern Greek. (Please don't answer that particular question; this feels like it's a rabbit hole with fewer answers than questions for a while, and comments aren't for more questions anyway) – Nic Hartley Feb 23 '16 at 20:38
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    @QPaysTaxes, if we have theories for how Greek and Latin were pronounced at the time, the spelling of the name gives a consistency condition between them. The two theories are consistent if c and kappa behave similarly (at least in this word). If we are more certain about Greek than Latin, we can use this consistency condition to infer ancient Roman pronunciation, but it could also be used the other way around. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 23 '16 at 20:41
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    There is actually suspicion that German Kaiser may be based on a so-called spelling pronunciation, i.e. based on someone trying to make sense of the written form Caesar; this is because other evidence suggests that ae no longer was a diphthong already in Caesar’s time. – chirlu Feb 24 '16 at 20:46
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    Plutarch in his Parallel Lives uses Κικέρων (adding the -ν for names of the type -o, -onis was common, as was conversely dropping it when Greek names were used in Latin). – chirlu Feb 24 '16 at 20:53
  • @chirlu, thanks for your comments! I edited the post slightly regarding the Greek spelling of Cicero. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 24 '16 at 21:24
-1

The "c" pronunciation as "ts" might have been coming from Indo-European languages, as we have Italian cuore and Polish serce, or Italian cento and Polish set-. I'd assume Germanic languages went through a change of the pronunciation of "c" into k or kh or finally h as seen in the word heart in English for example. I am quite tempted to assume people pronounced c as ks at times

  • 3
    Latin is itself an Indo-European language; the correspondence between c in Latin and s in Polish comes down to something called the "centum-satem split" several millennia ago. However, there's solid evidence that Latin c was the sound in English "cat": for example, we know that cs and gs were both written as x, as in dux and rex, and that the combination ts simplified to s, as in mīles. – Draconis Mar 15 at 21:12

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