It's fairly well-known that Old Latin had initial stress, which is why vowels generally only get reduced in non-initial syllables: see aptus versus in-eptus, which is continued by English "apt" and "inept".

In Classical times, this was replaced by a different stress system, based on vowel lengths and tending to put stress near the end of the word instead.

Did this Classical stress system cause any known and systematic sound changes, either in Latin or early Romance?

  • I'm somewhat confused about what you're asking here - you cite the well-know vowel changes that resulted from a systematic change of accent from old Latin to Classical Latin, so are you asking about the results of other changes as a consequence of (a different?) accent change?
    – varro
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 2:46
  • @varro Sorry, I'll clarify. Those sound changes result from the accent being in the initial position: if it had e.g. moved to purely final stress, as in French, you'd see the same things. I'm wondering if there were sound changes that depended on the Classical stress system.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


I'm not completely sure that I've understood your question, but I'll make a stab at it anyway.

How does Classical Latin accent affect the modern Romance languages? Well. here's a start. Words of the form (C)VCVCV(C) with an accent of the antepenult tended to eliminate the medial unstressed vowel to become (C)VCCV(C).

Examples are:

(from homo) homine(m) -> *(h)omne -> {Fr. homme; Sp. hombre < *(h)omre}

(from femina) femina -> *femna -> {Fr. femme; Sp. hembra < *hemna}

(from dominus) dominu(m) -> *domno -> Sp. dueño < *donno

Here's a curiosity that has caught my attention: the word tenebrae (basically "darkness", and by extension "evening") is well known in certain more traditionally oriented Christian traditions as the name for an evening service. It's always pronounced on the antepenult, [ˈtɛnɛbre] (or similar). It's interesting to note that the Spanish reflex of this word is tinieblas [tiniˈɛβlɑs], with the accent on the penultima.

  • 1
    Oh, is there hiatus in the Spanish word? I would have expected the “ie” to be /je/
    – Asteroides
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 4:30
  • Horae tenebrae are held early in the morning (they should be celebrated before dawn, which is not always observed) and only in the paschal triduum. The evening prayer is called "vespers".
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 7:32
  • @PavelV.: That may be true historically, but probably not typically nowadays. There are no doubt also variations according the particular church involved (note that tenebrae services are not confined to Roman Catholicism). I think all the tenebrae services I've attended have been in the evening.
    – varro
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 18:32
  • @sumelic: The transcription I gave reflects what I think I remember hearing, but I could be wrong, or there may be variation between [tiniˈɛβlɑs] and [tinˈjɛβlɑs] based on speakers/regions. &c. (And, of, course, I might just be wrong.)
    – varro
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 18:38
  • @varro: they are definitely held in the morning, at least in the Catholic Church in the Central Europe (I have spent Triduum only in Czech Republic and Poland yet, but I pray them every year), but the wikipedia article I linked supports that they should be held in the morning everywhere in the Catholic Church, though the emphasis of disapprovement of their celebration in the evening before suggests that there are local tradition moving the tenebrae to the evening despite the liturgical norms.
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 7:38

I don't know of any obvious or systematic effects that Classical Latin stress had on sound changes.

The non-obvious effects that I've seen proposed for Classical Latin stress are "brevis brevians" or "iambic shortening" and syncope of vowels.

Language and Rhythm in Plautus: Synchronic and Diachronic Studies, by Benjamin W. Fortson IV (2008), says that brevis brevians (the change of a heavy syllable to a light syllable after a light syllable) is usually thought to have specifically affected post-tonic heavy syllables (p. 183). Brevis brevians was not a systematic sound change; there are many exceptions to it. Also, Fortson actually suggests that brevis brevians could sometimes affect stressed syllables, saying "the aggregate of evidence that BB could affect the second syllable of trisyllables is far too great to be easily dismissed [...] Cross-linguistically, while tonic syllables resist syncope, they are not immune to shortening and other reduction processes; we must simply try to recover the conditions (if any) under which this was possible in Plautine Latin" (p. 208).

I don't remember any specific proposals about the relationship between stress and syncope in Latin; I just have a vague memory that they have been associated by some authors. The type of syncope I'm talking about is things like calidus > caldus.


As it happens, I came across an interesting answer to this question just the other day!

The answer is, yes. For a specific example, in Western Romance, short o and e became /ɔ ɛ/ in stressed syllables, but /o e/ in unstressed syllables. In Spanish, /ɔ ɛ/ then became ie and ue.


  • sólidum > sueldo, but corrúptum > corrupto
  • ténerum > tierno, but tenémus > tenemos

These depend specifically on the Classical Latin stress system, not on anything later: for example, we can put a suffix on trno to get tiernaménte, but the ie remains even when the stress is removed. In other words, it's fossilized into the words now and doesn't change any more, even when the modern Spanish stress would.

  • Are there any examples of words where the stress in a present-day Romance language is on a different syllable than the Classical Latin stress, and this sound change has occurred based on the position of the Classical Latin stress? In Italian at least, I know that this is described a synchronically active phonotactic constraint on the distribution of /ɔ/ and /ɛ/.
    – Asteroides
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:02
  • @sumelic In Spanish this has fossilized: for example, if we put a suffix on tiérno we get tiernaménte, where the diphthong remains even though the stress moved.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:32
  • Hmm, it's true that diphthongs can appear in non-primary-stressed syllables in Spanish, but I'm not sure that shows that diphthongization in Spanish was conditioned by the position of the stress in Classical Latin rather than by the position of the stress in a later stage of the language. User6726 posted an answer on Linguistics SE that suggested a synchronic analysis where stressed "tense" vowels diphthongize, but unstressed diphthongs don't monophthongize.
    – Asteroides
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:45
  • @sumelic Oh, no, the conditioning happened much later, but the stress system at the time seems to have been the same as the Classical one.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 5:32
  • But, I would say this answers the question, as it's a known and systematic sound changed caused by the famous penult-if-heavy system.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 5:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.