Late Latin

Latin spelling and pronunciation

The Roman alphabet, or Latin alphabet, was adapted from the Old Italic alphabet, to represent the phonemes of the Latin language, which had in turn been borrowed from the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician alphabet. This article deals primarily with modern scholarship's best guess at classical Latin pronunciation (that is, how Latin was spoken among educated people in the late Republic) and spelling, and then touches upon later changes and other variants.

Letters and phonemes

In classical times, each letter of the alphabet corresponded very closely with a phoneme. In the tables below, letters (and digraphs) are paired with the phonemes they represent in IPA. Only upper case existed.


  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
plain labial
Plosive voiced B /b/ D /d/ G /ɡ/  
voiceless P /p/   T /t/   C or K /k/ 1 QV /kʷ/
Fricative voiced   Z /z/2
voiceless   F /f/ S /s/ H /h/
Nasal M /m/ N /n/   G/N [ŋ]3    
Rhotic R /r/4      
Approximant   L /l/5 I /j/6 V /w/6

  1. In Early Latin, the letter was used regularly for /k/ before /a/ but in classical times had been replaced by , except in a very small number of words.
  2. /z/ was not a native Latin phoneme. The letter was used in Greek loanwords to represent zeta (Ζζ), which is thought to have denoted [z] by the time the letter was introduced into Latin. Between vowels, there is evidence that the sound was geminated, i.e. [zz]. Some authorities have maintained that Latin may have represented /dz/, but there is no clear evidence for this.
  3. /n/ assimilated its place of articulation before velar consonants to [ŋ] as in quinque ['kʷiŋkʷe]. Also, probably represented a velar nasal before (agnus: ['aŋnus]).
  4. The Latin rhotic was either an alveolar trill [r], like Spanish or Italian rr, or maybe an alveolar flap [ɾ], with a tap of the tongue against the upper gums, like Italian or Spanish r.
  5. /l/ is thought to have had two allophones in Latin, comparable to many varieties of modern English. According to Allen (Chapter 1, Section v) it was velarized [ɫ] as in English full at the end of a word or before another consonant; in other positions it was a plain alveolar lateral approximant [l] as in English look.
  6. and , in addition to representing vowels, were used to represent the corresponding approximants.

, , and were used in Greek loanwords with phi (Φφ /pʰ/), theta (Θθ /tʰ/), and chi (Χχ /kʰ/), respectively. Latin had no aspirated consonants and so these digraphs tended to be pronounced /p/ (and later /f/), /t/, and /k/, respectively (except by the most careful speakers). represented the consonant cluster /ks/.

Double consonants were geminated (/bː/, /kː/ etc.). Length was distinctive in Latin. For example anus /ˈanus/ ("old woman") or ānus /ˈaːnus/ ("ring, anus") vs. annus ("year"). In Early Latin, double consonants were not marked, but in the 2nd century BC, they began to be distinguished in books (but not in inscriptions) with a diacritical mark known as the sicilicus, which was described as being in the shape of a sickle.

(1) /j/ appears at the beginning of words before a vowel, or in the middle of the words between two vowels; in the latter case the sound is doubled: iūs /juːs/, cuius /ˈkujjus/. Since such a doubled consonant in the middle of a word makes the preceding syllable heavy, the vowel in that syllable is traditionally marked with a macron in dictionaries, although in fact the vowel is usually short. Compound words preserve the /j/ sound of the element that begins with it: adiectīvum /adjekˈtiːwum/.

(2) It is likely that, by the Classical period, /m/ at the end of words was pronounced weakly, either voiceless or simply by nasalizing (and lengthening) the preceding vowel. For instance decem ("ten") was probably pronounced [ˈdekẽː]. In addition to the metrical features of Latin poetry, the fact that all such endings in words of more than two syllables lost the final in the descendant Romance languages strengthens this hypothesis. For simplicity, and because this is not known for certain, is always represented as the phoneme /m/ here and in other references.


  Front Central Back
long short long short long short
High I   /iː/ I   /i/   V   /uː/ V   /u/
Mid E   /eː/ E   /e/   O   /oː/ O   /o/
Low   A   /aː/ A   /a/  

  • Each vowel letter (with the possible exception of ) represents at least two phonemes. can represent either short /a/ or long /aː/, is either /e/ or /eː/, etc.
  • Short mid vowels were pronounced with a different quality than their long counterparts, being also more open: open-mid /e/ and /o/ ([ɛ] and [ɔ], respectively). The same may, to some extent, be true for the close vowels as well: near-close /i/ and /u/ ([ɪ] and [ʊ]).
  • was used in Greek loanwords with upsilon (ϒυ /y/). Latin originally had no close front rounded vowel, and speakers tended to pronounce such loanwords as /u/ (in archaic Latin) or /i/ (in classical and late Latin) if they were unable to produce [y].


  • , , , , were originally diphthongs: was /ai/, was /oi/, /au/, /ei/ and /eu/. In Archaic Latin was /ai/ and was /oi/. However, and started to become monophthongs, /ɛː/ and /eː/ respectively in Classical Latin, at the beginning of the imperial period. This process, however, does not seem to have completed before 3rd century AD in Vulgar Latin, and some scholars say that it may be have been regular by the fifth century AD.

Other orthographic notes

  • and both represent /k/. In archaic inscriptions, is primarily used before and , while is used before . However, in classical times, the usage of had been reduced to a very small number of native Latin words — the kappa (Κκ) in words borrowed from Greek came to be represented as instead. clarified minimal pairs between /k/ and /kʷ/, making it possible to distinguish between cui /kui̯/ (with a falling diphthong) and qui /kʷiː/ (with a labialized velar stop).
  • In Old Latin, represented both /k/ and /g/. Hence, it was used in the abbreviation of common praenomina (first names): Gāius was written as C. and Gnaeus as Cn. Misunderstanding of this convention has led to the erroneous spelling Caius.
  • The semi-consonant /j/ was regularly geminated between two vowels, but this is not indicated in the spelling. Before a vocalic I the semi-consonant was often omitted altogether, for instance in reicit /ˈrejjikit/ "he/she/it threw back".


Vowel and consonant length were more significant and more clearly defined in Latin than in modern English. Length is the duration of time that a particular sound is held before proceeding to the next sound in a word. Unfortunately, "vowel length" is a confusing term for English speakers, who in their language call "long vowels" what are in most cases diphthongs, rather than plain vowels. In the modern spelling of Latin, especially in dictionaries and academic work, macrons are frequently used to mark long vowels (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū), while the breve is sometimes used to indicate that a vowel is short (ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ).

Long consonants were indicated through doubling (cf. anus and annus, two different words with distinct pronunciations), but Latin orthography did not distinguish between long and short vowels, nor between the vocalic and consonantal uses of I and V. A shortlived convention of spelling long vowels by doubling the vowel letter is associated with the poet Lucius Accius. Later spelling conventions marked long vowels with an apex (a diacritic similar to an acute accent), or in the case of long I, by increasing the height of the letter. Distinctions of vowel length became less important in later Latin, and have ceased to be phonemic in the modern Romance languages, where the previous long and short versions of the vowels have either been lost or replaced by other phonetic contrasts.

Syllables and stress

In Latin the distinction between heavy and light syllables is important as it determines where the main stress of a word falls, and is the key element in classical Latin versification. A heavy syllable (sometimes called a long syllable, but this risks confusion with long vowels) is a syllable that either contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in a consonant. If a single consonant occurs between two syllables within a word, it is considered to belong to the following syllable, so the syllable before the consonant is light if it contains a short vowel. If two or more consonants (or a geminated consonant) occur between syllables within a word, the first of the consonants goes with the first syllable, making it heavy. Certain combinations of consonants, e.g. tr, are exceptions: both consonants go with the second syllable.

In Latin words of two syllables, the stress is on the first syllable. In words of three or more syllables, the stress is on the penultimate syllable if this is heavy, otherwise on the antepenultimate syllable.


Where one word ended with a vowel (including a nasalised vowel, represented by a vowel plus M) and the next word began with a vowel, the first vowel, at least in verse, was regularly elided — in other words omitted altogether, or possibly (in the case of /i/ and /u/) pronounced like the corresponding semivowel. Elision also occurs in Ancient Greek but in that language it is shown in writing by the vowel in question being replaced by an apostrophe, whereas in Latin elision is not indicated at all in the orthography, but can be deduced from the verse form.

Latin today


Modern usage, even when printing classical Latin texts, varies in respect of i and v. Many publishers (such as Oxford University Press) continue the old convention of using I (upper case) and i (lower case) for both /i/ and /j/, and V (upper case) and u (lower case) for both /u/ and /w/. This is also the convention used in this article.

An alternative approach, less common today, is to use I/i and U/u only for the vowels, and J/j and V/v for the semi-consonants.

Most modern editions adopt an intermediate position, distinguishing between u and v but not between i and j. Usually the semi-consonant v after q or s is still printed as u rather than v, probably because in this position it did not change from /w/ to /v/ in post-classical times. This approach is also recommended in the Vicipaedia:Commendationes paginarum recte scribendarum for the Latin Wikipedia.

Textbooks and dictionaries indicate the quantity of vowels by putting a macron or horizontal bar above the long vowel, but this is not generally done in regular texts. Occasionally, mainly in early printed texts up to the 18th century, one may see a circumflex used to indicate a long vowel where this makes a difference to the sense, for instance Româ /ˈroːmaː/ "from Rome" (ablative) compared to Roma /ˈroːma/ "Rome" (nominative). Sometimes, for instance in Roman Catholic service books, an acute accent over a vowel is used to indicate the stressed syllable. This would be redundant for one who knew the classical rules of accentuation, and also made the correct distinction between long and short vowels, but most Latin speakers since the third century have not made any distinction between long and short vowels, while they have kept the accents in the same places, so the use of accent marks allows speakers to read aloud correctly even words that they have never heard spoken aloud.


Loan words and formal study

When Latin words are spoken in a living language today, there is ordinarily little or no attempt to pronounce them as the Romans did. Myriad systems have arisen for pronouncing the language — at least one for each language in the modern world whose speakers learn Latin. In most cases, Latin pronunciation is adapted to the phonology of the person's own language.

Latin words in common use in English are generally fully assimilated into the English sound system, with little to mark them as foreign (indeed, native speakers do not generally even think of these Latin words as foreign), for example, cranium, saliva. Other words have a stronger Latin feel to them, usually because of spelling features such as the diphthongs ae and oe (occasionally written æ and œ), which both denote /iː/ in English. In the Oxford style, ae represents /eɪ/, in formulae, for example. Ae in some words tends to be given an /aɪ/ pronunciation, for example, curriculum vitae.

Of course, using loan words in the context of the language borrowing them is a markedly different situation from the study of Latin itself. In this classroom setting, instructors and students attempt to recreate at least some sense of the original pronunciation. What is taught to native anglophones is suggested by the sounds of today's Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin. Instructors who take this approach rationalize that Romance vowels probably come closer to the original pronunciation than those of any other modern language (see also the section below on "Daughters of Latin").

However, other languages—including Romance family members—all have their own interpretations of the Latin phonological system, applied both to loan words and formal study of Latin. But English, Romance, or other teachers do not always point out that the particular accent their students learn is not actually the way ancient Romans spoke.

Ecclesiastical pronunciation

Because of the central position of Rome within the Roman Catholic Church, an Italian pronunciation of Latin became commonly accepted. This pronunciation corresponds to that of the Latin-derived words in Italian, and in some respects to the general pronunciation of Latin everywhere in the Middle Ages.

The following are the main points that distinguish ecclesiastical pronunciation from Classical Latin pronunciation:

  • Vowels are long when stressed and in an open syllable, otherwise short.
  • The digraphs AE and OE represent /e/.
  • C denotes [tʃ] (as in English ch) before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
  • G denotes [dʒ] (as in English j) before AE, OE, E, I or Y.
  • H is silent except in two words: mihi and nihil, where it is pronounced as [k].
  • S between vowels represents a voiced [z]; when followed by a C, they merge into /ʃ/.
  • TI, if followed by a vowel and not preceded by s, t, x, represents [tsi] (like English 'tsee').
  • V as a vowel /u/ is clearly distinguished from the consonant /v/ (Classical /w/), except after G, Q or S, where it is pronounced as /w/. The /v/ sound is now distinguished from the other two sounds also in writing (Vv, as opposed to Uu)
  • TH represents /t/.
  • PH represents /f/.
  • CH represents /k/.
  • Y represents /i/.
  • GN represents /ɲ/.
  • X represents /ks/, the /s/ of which merges with a following C to form /ʃ/, as in excelsis — /ekʃelsis/
  • Z represents /dz/.

In his Vox Latina: A guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin, William Sidney Allen remarked that this pronunciation, used by the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and elsewhere, and whose adoption Pope Pius X recommended in a 1912 letter to the Archbishop of Bourges, "is probably less far removed from classical Latin than any other 'national' pronunciation".

It is the most commonly recognized pronunciation, and the method most widely used today as a sort of standard pronunciation in singing. A recent example of its use occurred in the motion picture The Passion of the Christ, recorded in Aramaic and ecclesiastical Latin, which was criticised for being entirely anachronistic. However, some contemporary musicians try to produce authentic regional pronunciation as far as possible.

Derivative languages

Because it gave rise to many modern languages, Latin did not strictly "die": it merely evolved over centuries of use and from this was born the great diversity of the Romance languages. The end of the political unity of the Roman Empire accelerated the process, separating the populations of western Europe from each other, which made it less likely for a proto-Romance speaker to need to speak to someone from a distant locality, and encouraged the divergence of local dialects. Moreover, written Latin, like written English, was always to some degree an artificial literary language, somewhat different in grammar, syntax, and lexicon from the vernacular. In Classical times, the people in the street did not speak the formal, Classical tongue. They spoke what is known as Vulgar Latin, which was already very different from its sibling, mainly because of simplifications in its grammar and phonology. It is this Vulgar Latin that became modern French, Italian, etc.

Key features of Vulgar Latin and Romance include:

  • Total loss of /h/ and final /m/.
  • Pronunciation of /ai/ and /oi/ as /e/.
  • Conversion of the distinction of vowel length into a distinction of height, and subsequent merger of some of these phonemes. Most Romance languages merged short /u/ with long /oː/ and short /i/ with long /eː/.
  • Total loss of Greek sounds (which were never part of the language).
  • Palatalization of /k/ before /e/ and /i/, probably first into /kj/, then /tj/, then /tsj/ before finally developing into /ts/ in loanwords into languages like German, /tʃ/ in Florentine, /θ/ or /s/ in Spanish (depending on dialect) and /s/ in French, Portuguese, and Catalan. French had a second palatalisation of /k/ to /ʃ/ (French ch) before Latin /a/.
  • Palatalization of /g/ before /e/ and /i/, and of /j/, into /dʒ/. French underwent a second palatalisation, of /g/ before Latin /a/.
  • Palatalization of /ti/ followed by vowel (if not preceded by s, t, x) into /tsj/.
  • The change of /w/ (except after /k/) and, between vowels, /b/ into /β/, then /v/ (in Spanish, [β] was reduced to an allophone of /b/, instead).


The following examples are both in verse, which demonstrates several features more clearly than prose.

Classical Latin

Virgil's Aeneid, Book 1, verses 1–4. Quantitative metre. Translation: "I sing of arms and the man, who, driven by fate, came first from the borders of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian shores; he [was] much afflicted both on lands and on the deep by the power of the gods, because of fierce Juno's vindictive wrath."

  1. Ancient Roman orthography (before 2nd century)
  2. :
  3. :
  4. :
  5. :
  6. Traditional (19th century) English orthography
  7. :Arma virumque cano, Trojæ qui primus ab oris
  8. :Italiam, fato profugus, Lavinaque venit
  9. :Litora; multum ille et terris jactatus et alto
  10. :Vi superum, sævæ memorem Junonis ob iram.
  11. Modern orthography with macrons (as Oxford Latin Dictionary)
  12. :Arma uirumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
  13. :Ītaliam fātō profugus, Lāuīnaque uēnit
  14. :lītora; multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
  15. :uī superum, saeuae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram.
  16. Ancient Roman pronunciation
  17. :
  18. :
  19. :
  20. :

Note the elisions in mult(um) and ill(e) in the third line. For a fuller discussion of the prosodic features of this passage, see Latin poetry: Dactylic hexameter.

Mediaeval Latin

Beginning of Pange Lingua by St Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). Rhymed accentual metre. Translation: "Extol, [my] tongue, the mystery of the glorious body and the precious blood, which the fruit of a noble womb, the king of nations, poured out as the price of the world."

1. Traditional orthography as in Roman Catholic service books (stressed syllable marked with an acute accent on words of three syllables or more).

Pange lingua gloriósi
Córporis mystérium,
Sanguinísque pretiósi,
quem in mundi prétium
fructus ventris generósi
Rex effúdit géntium.

2. "Italianate" ecclesiastical pronunciation



  • Allen, W. Sidney. (2003) Vox Latina — a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin, second edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37936-9.
  • Clackson, James & Geoffrey Horrocks. (2007) The Blackwell History of the Latin Language Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-6209-8.
  • Pekkanen, Tuomo. (1999) Ars grammatica — Latinan kielioppi. Helsinki University Press, 3rd-6th edition. ISBN 951-570-022-1.
  • Pope, M. K. (1952 [1934]) From Latin to Modern French with especial consideration of Anglo-Norman, revised edition. Manchester University Press.

See also

External links

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