Questions regarding the pronunciation of Latin words or syllables, or the history of Latin pronunciation. The desired time period for the pronunciation in question should be added.

Relevant questions and how to phrase them

Questions under this tag should have as their main focus how Latin was pronounced, be it by the educated or by the masses. Whether the question is concerning modern speakers’ rendition of Mediæval Latin, or Classical rhetors’ jabs at the ‘awful’ enunciation of the common folk, or how Old Latin speakers declaimed Saturnian verses: all of these and so many more questions where pronunciation is central are all relevant within this category. Given how literature was disseminated in older times, numerous literary questions might also belong under this tag.

Good questions under this tag should include a clear reference to both when and where the text in question belongs, but also when and where the text in question is to be interpreted. In other words, if the questioner wants to understand how a Classical Latin text would have been read by e.g. Leonardo da Vinci, this is highly relevant information for how to write a good answer, so make sure this information is included. If the text is to be presented in a specific context, this could also be relevant information. Example:

  • A text by a writer from the classical era.
  • A melody from late antiquity.
  • Reharmonised in a French baroque aesthetic for a chamber orchestra on a concert in Germany.

Should the text be presented in Ciceronian, Ambrosian, 17th century French or modern German pronunciation?

Periodisation and developments

There are five, six or maybe seven (or more) main historical developments of spoken Latin:

  • Archaic Latin and Old Latin (700–325 ʙᴄᴇ, 325–120 ʙᴄᴇ), during which the difference between Vulgar Latin (the people’s Latin) and the educated Latin appears to have not been very dissimilar, and the difference between spoken Latin and written Latin was minimal.
  • Classical Latin (120 ʙᴄᴇ–250 ᴄᴇ), during which a more clear distinction between the educated few and the uneducated masses began to develop a clearer distinction, not only in pronunciation, but also in word choice. Educated written Latin and common Latin (such as graffiti) begin to deviate more, such as in omitting initial h.
  • Vulgar Latin (250–600 ᴄᴇ), during which we begin to see some diphthongs develop into monophthongs, some vowels get lowered, palatalisation begins to show up. During this period, the regional developments begin to take the stage more clearly, and the early roots of the Romance and Latinate languages are taking shape. Written Latin preserves older pronunciations such as /ae/ and /oe/, whilst the pronunciation changes which had began during the classical period, shifted the actual pronunciation of these diphthongs to monophthongal: ae went from /ae̯/ to /ɛː/ and oe went from /oe̯/ to /eː/.
  • Transitional Latin (600–850 ᴄᴇ) sees a dramatic rise in the accusative–ablative merger, and the same with the E~I merger. Vulgar Latin developments carry over into written Latin, which begins to reflect these developments both in pronunciation, word-choice and grammar much more clearly. The Vindolanda tablets are excellent sources for studying these changes.
  • Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin sees Latin as the lingua franca of Europe. Anyone with an education of some higher standard would be expected to be able to communicate both in written and spoken Latin across the borders. Regional pronunciations of Latin are strong, reflecting the phonology of the major languages of Europe; in other words, we get Latin with accent: Frankish accent, Germanic accent, English accent, Scandinavian accent, Italian accent, Spanish accent.

In 1902¹ a papal decree established the Italian Ecclesiastical pronunciation of Latin as the one to be used by the church. Up until then, different countries had all had their own regional pronunciations, which is reflected amongst others in the way music was written. Within academia, scholars have successfully followed up on the work originally pursued by Erasmus in restoring the pronunciation of Classical Latin. All in all, this means that modern Latin speakers have a rich tapestry of pronunciation traditions to choose from, all of which can be considered correct in the right circumstances.

Notes and resources

  1. This year needs a source, which is currently being investigated.