8

The rules for positioning of syllable stress in Latin are relatively simple; they are as follows:

  1. In two-syllable words, the stress always falls on the first syllable.

  2. In three or more syllable words, the stress falls like so:

    a. If the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable is heavy, the stress is placed on it.

    b. If the penultimate syllable is light, the stress is placed on the antepenultimate (third-to-last) syllable.

This alone is all well and good, there are only three-ish rules to memorize, and the irregular couple-syllable words that are exceptions to this rule are easy to learn and recognize. However, what always trips me up is the use of the terms "heavy" and "light" (or other related terms) to describe which syllables are stressed.

For the duration of my Latin learning experience, I have simply assumed that syllables containing long vowels were heavy and that syllables containing short vowels were light, or simply just making a qualitative judgment to determine whether the penultimate or antepenultimate syllables "felt" heavy or light. Neither of these methods has ever felt sound to me and I am almost 100% certain that I am not distinguishing heavy and light syllables correctly. Thus, my question:

What are the differences between heavy and light syllables and how does one go about identifying them?

  • 1
    You have given a clear description of stress: there can only be one stressed syllable in a given word; I believe that there is a further rule that a prefix (in- dys-) cannot be the stressed syllable. However in metrication a spondee, for instance, consists of two consecutive heavy syllables, sometimes in one word. Well-formed Latin seems to have used stress and heavy-light in some sort of interplay. Additionally, tho' I've not seen it argued, terminal vowel followed by initial vowel; and terminal vowel+m followed by vowel, elision, seem to be used where there is excitement, panic, fear – Hugh Sep 20 '18 at 0:44
  • 3
    @Hugh I've never seen a rule that prefixes can't be stressed -- do you have a source for it? – TKR Sep 20 '18 at 18:41
  • @ TKR : you're right. "Incipit" for a start. – Hugh Sep 20 '18 at 21:02
7

All syllables containing long vowels are heavy, but not all heavy syllables contain long vowels.

Syllabification is in general a fairly abstract linguistic concept, and so there are several different ways of thinking about Latin syllabification.

I believe the most common current analysis would be that a syllable is heavy either (a) if it contains a long vowel, or (b) if it ends with a consonant, and light if it ends with a short vowel.

The consonant rule is the most complicated part.

Syllables containing a diphthong are heavy, except for in a few rare special circumstances. Different sources treat this as an example of (a) or (b), depending on whether you analyze diphthongs as vowel-consonant sequences.

Latin syllabification for intervocalic consonant clusters

a common modern system

As I mentioned, syllabification is a tricky subject, and there are different approaches to it (in general, and in Latin specifically).

According to the approach that I am familiar with from modern linguistic literature about Latin, almost all consonant clusters in Latin were split between syllables when they occurred in between vowels in the middle of a word. This includes double (also called "geminate") consonants, and it also includes -sp-, -st-, sc-. So words like sinister, minister, magister were stressed on the second-to-last syllable in Classical Latin.

One complication is that Latin didn’t always write double consonants with two letters. Z and most intervocalic I/J scan as double consonants, despite being written with only single letter, and therefore the penultimate syllables of words like major and Trapezus (from Greek Τραπεζοῦς) are heavy, even though they likely contained short rather than long vowels.

Mute + liquid sequences

The exception to the rule that word-internal intervocalic consonant clusters were split between syllables consists of “mute + liquid” clusters, composed of an obstruent followed by R or L (e.g. tr, pr, cr, br, cl, ...). These could either be split between syllables (in which case the preceding syllable would be heavy), or could occur at the start of a syllable (in which case the preceding syllable would be light). There seems to have been some variability in the division of syllables for some words with mute + liquid clusters (perhaps especially in poetry). One rule that I have read applied in general in the Classical period is that these clusters were split between syllables when they come from combining a consonant-final prefix (e.g. sub-, ab-, ob-, ad-) with a base starting with R or L, and they formed the onset of a syllable in other cases. So abruptus would typically have a heavy first syllable (ab.ruptus), but celebris would typically have a light second syllable (as cele.bris). But this is a complicated topic; syllabifications like celeb.ris were also possible.

As Joonas mentions, QU is also an exception if you analyze it as a consonant cluster (it can also be analyzed as a unitary sound /kʷ/).

Diphthongs

A syllable containing a diphthong is heavy when there is a consonant after the diphthong (it doesn't matter whether the consonant and diphthong are in the same syllable). For example, the first syllable of nau.ta is heavy. As I mentioned above, in some analyses such syllables are treated as ending in a consonant (/naw.ta/).

Diphthongs rarely come before vowels in Latin. The main circumstance where this causes a complication is in words with the prefix prae-; this prefix may scan as a light syllable when it is followed by a vowel.

Other systems

Alex B.'s answer suggests a somewhat different system, since he treats gn as another intervocalic cluster that might be put entirely in the onset of the second syllable rather than being split between the first and second syllable. I would disagree; I think the syllabification of regnum ought to be rēg.num (long vowels do come before consonant clusters in some words, such as nūl.lus or various past participles such as āctus).

This reminded me that at least one older tradition of Latin syllabification takes an extreme approach to syllable onsets, and treats any intervocalic consonant cluster that can start a word as an onset. (I think this is connected to some similar old tradition for the syllabification of Ancient Greek.) Thus Zumpt's Grammar of the Latin Language (1845) gives the following account:

Those consonants which, in Latin or Greek, may together begin a word, go together in the division of syllables; e.g. [...] i-gnis (gnomon), o-mnis, dam-num (μνάομαι), a-ctus, pun-ctum (κτῆμα), ra-ptus, scri-ptus, pro-pter (Ptolemaeus), Ca-dmus (δμῶες), re-gnum (γνούς), va-fre (fretus), a-thleta (θλίβω), i-pse, scri-psi (ψαύω), Le-sbos (σβέννυμι), e-sca, po-sco (scando), a-sper, ho-spes (spes), pa-stor, fau-stus, i-ste (stare).

(p. 11)

Obviously, if you divide syllables Zumpt's way, you can't use the rule that a syllable is light if it ends with a short vowel. So older texts make use of terminology like "heavy by position" and "a short vowel followed by two or more consonants" rather than basing weight on whether a syllable ends in a consonant.

To me, it seems simplest to use the first approach to syllabification that I presented.

Word boundaries

I didn't talk yet about word boundaries. It's usual in Latin for a consonant to be syllabified with a following vowel even when that vowel is in another word. This means that words ending in a short vowel followed by a single consonant, like in, regularly scan as light in contexts like in urbe [ɪˈnʊr.bɛ]. Before a consonant, however, such words scan with a heavy final syllable: in vino [ɪnˈwiː.noː].

There seems to be some uncertainty about whether the word-initial sequences st, sc, sp may be split between syllables after a vowel-final word, making the preceding syllable heavy. I don't know that much about this point.

I'm also aware of vowels before mute + liquid clusters being treated in post-Classical Latin as "common" even when there is a word boundary, but as far as I know these clusters did not usually resyllabify across word boundaries in Classical Latin.

6

A syllable is can be heavy in two ways. It is heavy by nature if it contains a long vowel or a diphthong. It is heavy by position if the vowel is followed by a "consonant cluster". If neither happens, the syllable is light. It can also be heavy for both of the two reasons.

The irregularities have to do with what "consonant cluster" means. Mostly, it means two or more consonants, and simplifying the rule this way gets most cases right. The important question is whether the consonant or combination thereof sounds short or long. Some long-looking combinations of consonants are short and do not count as "consonant clusters" for syllable weight; these are qu and some cases of muta cum liquida. Sometimes a "consonant cluster" is spelled with a single letter, like the i in maior (pronounced /majjor/, not /major/ or /maajor/) or z. Perhaps a more accurate term would have been "long consonant sound" rather than "consonant cluster".

6

The answer to your question is simple and difficult at the same time.

As Christian Lehmann (Lehmann 2010) puts it rather succinctly,

"A light syllable is one ending in a short vowel; all other syllables are heavy."

The real challenge, of course, is syllabification, i.e. how to correctly (best?) divide any Latin word into syllables, e.g. rēg.num or rē.gnum? (the latter is most likely since a consonant cluster cannot follow a long vowel or diphthong) - although Lehmann argues that "Latin’s syllabication rules are very simple."

He mentions two rules:

  1. Except at the beginning of a breath group, a syllable onset must contain at least one segment.
  2. From there, the left syllable boundary is shifted successively leftward until either sonority no longer decreases sufficiently or there is a grammatical boundary (Lehmann 2010).

I am afraid the minutiae of syllabification in Latin would be of particular interest to theoretical linguists mostly and I don't see much practical use in discussing specific contexts and words (e.g. vólu.cres vs. volúc.res or re.flecto vs. cinif.lones; Weiss pp.67-71 is a good place to start with). However, if you would like to know more about syllabification in Latin, perhaps a separate question would be better.

  • With rule 1), what is the treatment of vowels that seem to be in hiatus? – Asteroides Sep 21 '18 at 5:54
  • @sumelic What exactly did you have in mind? A specific example would be more helpful. (it could be rule 1 - it says "one segment in a syllable onset" or rule 2 "there is a grammatical boundary") – Alex B. Sep 21 '18 at 15:20
  • 1
    @sumelic a quote for you from Lehmann 2005: "A sequence of two vowels that contains a morpheme boundary (V#V) is always separated by a syllable boundary (re#i, re#um, me#am, tu#us etc.). If there is no morpheme boundary between two vowels, the sequence would be contracted into a diphthong, in other words, one of the two vowels would become a semivowel." – Alex B. Sep 21 '18 at 16:22
  • 1
    Thanks; I hadn’t noticed before that hiatus in Latin occurred mainly across morpheme boundaries. – Asteroides Sep 21 '18 at 20:11
  • But still, I don’t think the second syllables of “meam” etc start a new breath group, do they? Also, I’m confused about the argument against “reg.num” because it seems to me that in “rex” we have a long vowel followed by a consonant cluster. – Asteroides Sep 21 '18 at 20:16

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