Dionysius Scorpio Invictus
Latin pronunciation is an uncertain
field. No one has been able to revive an ancient Roman to see how
he pronounced his language, and even so, there probably were a
lot of regional varieties in Italia, and especially in the
conquered provinces. Nevertheless, from the way the Romans wrote,
and from comments of authors who were occupied with language,
oratory or commented on the pronounciation of their
contemporaries, we can assemble a set of fairly commonly accepted
rules. However, no manner is completely orthodox, and always has
Take note of the following symbols:
<..> for a grapheme (character) and [..] for a phonemic
realisation (actual sound). Also remark that this document has
been written mainly for the use of anglophones (as it's written
in English), but that in order to understand and pronounce Latin,
knowledge of other languages comes in very handily.
Since most Indo-European languages
use an alphabet largely derived from the Roman or Greek one (although
there are exceptions, such as Jiddisch) the Roman alphabet is
very easy to grasp by intuition. Their alphabet consisted of 24
A B C D E F G H I (K) L M N O P Q R
S T V (X Y Z)
It has to be pointed out, that the
<K, X, Y, Z> were marginal characters. The <K> was
gradually replaced by the <C>, and the last three letters
were loaned from Greek, and only appear in Greek (or other
oriental) loanwords. Also note that the original Roman alphabet
makes no distinction between <U> and <V> and that the
<J> was only added in medieval times; interesting to remark
is also that the Romans did not employ small and capitalised
characters as the Greeks did.
The most important thing to note is,
as in the majority of languages, one character does not always
equal one sound, and one sound is not always represented by one
- <B> as
the voiced plosive [b] in all germanic languages, French
and a host of other language.
- <P> as
the voicless plosive [p] in English, French, Dutch,
German and a number of other languages.
- <F> as
the fricative [f] in most languages.
- <PH> was
pronounced as an aspirated [p], id est, a normal [p]
accompanied by a puff of air. This sound also exists in
Etruscan and Greek, which both had a significant
influence on Latin, former in earlier stages, latter in
later eras. In Greek loanwords suchg as <physica>,
the <PH> can also be pronounced [pf] or even [f].
In Greek dialects, there was a great variety in this.
- <C> is
pronounced [k] in all instances, and is a voiceless
originally represented [k], but when <C> came to
take this function over, the <K> only remained a
marginal grapheme, and only occurs in words such as
<Kalendae> or in writings of hellenised authors
using Greek words (Greek only has the <k> and
doesn't have a <c>)
- <G> is
pronounced as [g] as in the English word <goat>,
and is a voiced guttural stop.
- <Q> originally
came from Etruscan and probably indicated a [k]
pronounced with rounded lips, but eventually came to
represent the [kw] as we know it today. Note that the
grapheme <Q> is always followed by <V> (or
occurred in Greek and Etruscan loanwords, but also in
genuine Latin words. In latter case, its pronounciation
is probably an aspirated [k], as described under the
<PH>. In case of loanwords such as
<christus>, the Latin pronounciation can be used,
but better would be to use the [kx] or even [x]; the so-called
"ach-Laut", a guttural
fricative which does not exist in English, but does in a
great deal of other languages.
- <H> is
pronounced as the [h] in most other languages, but was
usually dropped by the lower classes, and in later times
(by the end of the empire) it was gradually abolished
altogether with the fall of the western Empire.
- <M> as
the labial nasal [m] in English and most other languages
poses no problem.
- <N> as
the dental nasal [n] in English and most other languages
poses no problem.
- <NG> is
pronounced as in the English word "thing".
Beware not to voice the <G> of this consonant when
another syllable follows.
- <S> is
pronounced as the English, French, Dutch or German [s].
- <Z> was
a marginal phoneme, and usually occurred in Greek
loanwords such as <zephyrus>, and was pronounced [dz]
or [ts], comparable to the German <z> in for
- <T> poses
no problem, and sounds like the English [t].
occurred in Greek loanwords such as <thorax>
and is pronounced like the English "thorn".
- <R> is a
simple alveolar tap [r] as in modern day Italian and
Spanish. It was never pronounced as a uvular [R] as in
French, Danish or German.
- <RR> is
an alveolar trill [rr], which is actually an elongation
of the consonant above. Most languages do not have this
distinction, but Latin had.
- <X> was
also a marginal phoneme, and like the <Q> actually
represents two sounds: [ks]. English speakers should be
mindful that the <X> is also pronounced [ks]
in the beginning of a word. It occurs in Greek loanwords
and names such as <Xenophon>.
- <I> was
pronounced [j] as in English <yes>
or Dutch <ja> when it preceded
another vowel. In medieval Latin this was shown by
replacing the character by <J>.
- <V> was
pronounced as the English <w> with strong lip-rounding.
It was only pronounced this way if it preceded another
vowel that was not the <V> itself. Most textbooks
however make this distinction clear by using the
<U> to show where the actual <V> needs to be
The free vowels of Latin are
relatively easy to deal with. Basic Latin had five vowel pairs,
with the addition of another (marginal) pair in later times. All
free vowels have short-long-opposition wich is indicated by the
[:] wich means long and the [ ] which means short.
- <A> is
pronounced [a:] in stressed syllables and [a] in
unstressed syllables, very much as in modern Italian,
Dutch or German. Anglophones should try to isolate the
first sound of the diphthongue in "might"
in order to produce this sound.
- <E> has
different forms of pronounciation, its most common forms
being [e:] and [e] in most cases (same rules as with the
<A> to discern between long and short),
respectively as the first part of the diphtongue in
"face" and the short vowel in
"dress" in English.
- <I> was,
depending on the stress, pronounced [i:] as in "see"
or [i] as in "me" in English.
Supposed, of course, that it doesn't precede a vowel in
the beginning of a word.
- <O> was,
depending on the stress, pronounced [o:] or [o] as in the
first part of the diphthongue in English "so"
or as can be found in many North-English and
- <V> was,
depending on the stress, pronounced as [u:] in "goose"
or [u] in "you" in English,
but probably with more lip-rounding and backing,
resembling an [o:] at times. Even in the upper class, it
was a frequent spelling mistake of nobles to write
<O> when they should have written <V>.
Important to note is that a <V> followed by another
vowel is usually pronounced [w]. In most Latin
transcriptions, this will be shown by actually using a
<v> and making the difference clear by using the
<u> for the real vowel.
represents a problem for people who speak English only.
Phonetically, it is represented by [y:] or [y]. If you
don't know how to form this sound, try to form a long [i:]
with rounded lips instead of spread lips. With some
practise, it should work. You can also ask advice from
people who know German, French or another language which
has this sound. The <Y> is a marginal vowel,
however, and only occurred in Greek loanwords such as
<cyclops>. It's very probable that the Romans
themselves were often unable to correctly produce this
Last to deal with are the
diphthongues. These require special attention.
- <AE> is
not recognised as a diphthongue by church Latin, and
pronounced [e:], but is recognised that way by modern
Latin pronounciation, effectively being the glide [ae].
The written sequence <AI> essentially has the same
sound. It's important to get this correct, as it is a
frequent sound in Latin.
occurs mostly in Greek loanwords such as <phoenix>,
and was probably pronounced [oi] (where the "o"
is as in "lot" and the "i" as in
is pronounced as [ei].
is not just a longer stress or duration of the [u] but
effectively two seperate vowels, seperated by a small
stop (a glottal stop). It is not a real diphthongue, but
it's still a sequence of two sounds, its pronounciation
is the same, but with the [i] sound, so the result is [ii].
In both cases, the stress is put on the last vowel.