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When I refer to letters in Latin, I (sadly) use the English names for them. If I knew the Latin names, I could apply Classical Latin pronunciation rules to say them properly.

So, how was each letter referred to in Classical Latin? How do we know?

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I'll briefly summarize the analysis of W. Sydney Allen in Vox Latina, 111ff., which is itself a summary of A. E. Gordon's The Letter Names of the Latin Alphabet.

First, the vowels. These have the phonetic value of the letter in its long form: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. This is well established both by grammarians (Allen cites Pompeius, "quando solae proferuntur, longae sunt semper," Commentum Artis Donati) and use in poetry, where the hexameter demands that the lone vowel is long:

A primum est, hinc incipiam, et quae nomina ab hoc sunt

Turning to consonants, most of the plosives (b, c, d, g, t) have a vowel, ē, added to the end of them. The fact that the added vowel is an e is attested by grammarians, while the length of it is established by the meter of a number of works of poetry.

The two plosives that don't follow this rule are k and q. Their names, according to grammarians and other sources, are and , respectively; this is likely a result of ways these letters were commonly used (frequently ka- and qu-)

The letter h, an aspirate, receives relatively little attention, but some grammarians give its name as , with the vowel quantity demonstrated by meter.

The remaining letters in the original Latin alphabet, f, l, m, n, r, s, x, represent sounds that can be prolonged (unlike the plosives), allowing them to form independent syllables and therefore, theoretically, to be named simply by sounding them (without the addition of a vowel). This may have been the practice of some, but a system attributed to Varro adds ĕ, a short vowel, in front: ĕf, ĕl, ĕm, ĕn, ĕr, ĕs, ĕx. Some writers, influenced by Greek, name x as ĭx. This system apparently prevailed (it is found in Priscian, among others), but one alternative system we are aware of employed a short vowel before and after, to form the disyllabic names ĕffĕ, ĕllĕ, etc.

The letters y and z were not originally members of the Latin alphabet. The earliest name of y may have been hy, from Greek, but later this would have been confused with the name for i, so it was given the name y graeca, pronounced as ī graeca. The letter z took its Greek name, zēta.

So, the names of all the letters are:

A    B    C    D    E    F    G    H    I    K 
ā    bē   cē   dē   ē    ĕf   gē   hā   ī    cā

L    M    N    O    P    Q    R    S    T    U
ĕl   ĕm   ĕn   ō    pē   cū   ĕr   ĕs   tē   ū   

X            Y                 Z
ĕx or ĭx     y ([ī]) graeca    zēta
  • 1
    That's pretty the same as the current German names of the letters. – K-HB Apr 8 at 14:56
  • @K-HB: And as Dutch, too1 – Cerberus May 4 at 22:56
  • I have two objections to the names of each letter: 1. It doesn’t show the names of 3 letters, J, V and W. 2. In my opinion, each of the names don’t really look like the right way of spelling them. – Craig Lungren Jun 29 at 19:56
  • @CraigLungren To answer your objection: J, V, and W didn't exist during Classical times. Why do you think it's not the right way of writing them? – Draconis Jun 29 at 20:20
  • 3
    @CraigLungren A couple or remarks: 1. If you want to figure out why those three letters are missing, you can ask a separate question. If you want to know why the names of the letters are that way, please ask another new question. 2. I converted your answer into a comment, as it was a comment to the answer by Nathaniel. If you ask some well phrased questions, you should soon enough earn the reputation to leave comments. 3. As a Finn, I see that also the letters Å, Ä, Ö are missing from the list. I believe most Finns are easily convinced that those were not used in Latin. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 29 at 20:59

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