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before two consonants even if it had been long in Latin. For example,
in English pronunciation actum ˜waged™ and factum ˜done™ rhyme
(as do the words act and fact), even though in Latin the ¬rst has
a long a and the second a short one.
More striking are the changes in the quality of the long vowels, as
a result of the so-called Great Vowel Shift, which took place in
English in the ¬fteenth and sixteenth centuries. This caused the
vowels in words like game, seem, rose, and wine to cease to be pro-
nounced as long [a], [e], [o], and [i] respectively, and to have instead
their modern values. The pronunciation of Latin vowels followed
suit. One place where this pronunciation can still occasionally be
heard is in some of the Latin phrases that pepper legal and philo-
sophical talk. If a case is adjourned inde¬nitely, the lawyers may say
sine die (literally ˜without a day™) and pronounce this expression
something like ˜sign-ee die-ee™. We also usually say habeas corpus
with the ¬rst word sounding something like ˜hay-bee-ass™, and we
have a diphthong in the ¬rst syllable of modus and the last syllable
of operandi in the expression modus operandi, well known to all
lovers of detective ¬ction.The logical terms a priori and a fortiori are

Latin and Europe

usually pronounced with the ¬rst word like the name of the letter
A and the last vowel like the word I. There is also a residue of this
pronunciation in astrological names like Gemini, Leo, and Pisces. To
this source too may be traced the difference between the British
and American pronunciation of the pre¬xes semi- and anti-. This
tendency is, however, on its way out, and some Latin expressions
that have entered everyday language now have something nearer
a classical pronunciation. The word qua in the phrase sine qua non
for instance is now usually pronounced [kwa] where once it was
pronounced [kwei].
Among the consonants some habits came in via the teaching of
Latin in French, such as the pronunciation of both the initial i in
words like Iulius and Ianuarius and the g of genius and gens with the
sound (technically called an affricate) that we still have in January
and gentle. Also from French is the ˜soft™ pronunciation of c as [s] in
words like censeo and cella.
As long as English had a trilled r-sound (of the kind that still
survives in Scottish and some regional accents) there was no problem
over producing something close to the Latin r before a consonant
(as in cornu ˜horn™) or at the end of a word, as in pater. However,
after the loss of this sound in southern, and hence standard, English
pronunciation many English speakers had dif¬culty in distinguishing
pairs such as parcis ˜you spare™ and pacis ˜of peace™, or in producing
the correct stressed vowels in words like cerno ˜I see™ and virtus
˜virtue™. Similarly, since English l has a ˜dark™ quality at the end of
the word (e.g. in words like feel, fall) and before consonants (as in felt
and ¬lm), the traditional pronunciation of words like alter ˜other™
and mel ˜honey™ errs in the same direction. There have been various
attempts at reform over the years. In the university of Cambridge in
the sixteenth century there was a strong lobby in favour of the
return to classical pronunciation habits advocated by the great
Dutch classical scholar Erasmus in his dialogue De recta Latini
Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione ˜On the correct pronunciation
of Latin and Greek™ (1528). This was opposed, however, on various
grounds, not the least being that it would make the pronunciation

A natural history of Latin

of Latin different in Oxford and Cambridge! The idea of reform
reappeared some four centuries later.A group of scholars and teachers
in the 1870s proposed a new reformed pronunciation for classical
Latin and this had gained fairly widespread acceptance by the begin-
ning of the twentieth century. This reformed pronunciation, as one
commentator wryly noted, did not actually involve using any non-
English sounds or even English sounds in non-English positions, but
at least it ensured reasonable approximations to most of the classical
consonants and vowels.
Those who teach Latin today follow more closely the precepts
that are normal in modern language teaching and insist right from
the outset on something much nearer to the classical qualities and
quantities of the vowels, the correct assignment of stress, the ˜hard™
pronunciation of k and g in all positions in the word, and an accurate
rendering of the letters r and l before consonants and at the end of
the word. It is probably true to say that modern attempts to pro-
nounce the language are more faithful to ancient norms than at any
time since the fall of the Roman empire.
Just as the English pronunciation deviated from the classical
standard, so there were of course corresponding local tendencies in
other countries all over Europe, so when people came together there
must have been something of a muddle of different pronunciations.
Indeed, we learn as much from Erasmus™ dialogue in which he mocks
the pronunciation of Latin by the different ambassadors at the court
of the Emperor Maximilian.
It is in general dif¬cult or impossible to know exactly how Latin
was pronounced in a given country at any given time, and most
people would probably not think it was a matter of much interest
anyway. One group of people in Britain and elsewhere, however, for
whom the question is of some importance are those who sing in
choirs. Several of the pieces in the repertoire are religious works
whose words are in Latin. What pronunciation should be used?
Anxious choirmasters and mistresses have sought the advice of
specialists on matters such as: what did Bach™s Latin sound like?
Should one style of pronunciation be used in a mass by Mozart and

Latin and Europe

another in a mass by Verdi? To avoid complete confusion, it is
usually suggested that choirs and others who are required to read
or sing aloud a Latin text written after the period of antiquity
should stick to a single pronunciation. The one generally recom-
mended is that in use in Italy. This a practical and sensible choice,
both because it is quite close to the classical pronunciation and
because the Italian pronunciation of Latin has always had the great-
est prestige. Italy is the country in which Rome lies, and Rome was
the ¬rst capital of the empire and later became the centre of the
Church. Pronouncing Latin in the Italian way is not dif¬cult. Here is
a list of the most important differences between the Italian and the
classical pronunciations:

the letter groups ae and oe are both pronounced [e];

the vowel letter y (which in Latin only occurs in Greek loans) is

pronounced [i];
the letter h is not pronounced at all;

the combinations ci and cci and ce and cce are pronounced as the

¬rst sounds in chilly and check respectively.
the combination ti before a vowel is pronounced [tsi], as in natio


Increasingly, however, the modern interest in performances on
authentic period instruments has led a number of choirs to experi-
ment instead with pronunciations that correspond more closely to
the precise way Latin was pronounced at the time and place when the
piece was composed. However, if you have no specialist reason to
need to know exactly how Latin sounded at different periods, you
can always use the classical pronunciation which I explained at the
beginning of the book.
There remains the question of how Latin was spelled in the
Middle Ages. The main rule was of course at all periods to follow the
classical spelling, but certain departures from classical practice were
nonetheless very common. For instance, the combination ae was
generally pronounced [e], and it became common practice to spell it
that way too. Most people in the Middle Ages did not write saecula

A natural history of Latin

˜centuries™ and praemium ˜prize™ but secula and premium. Often, as
with the latter example, the loanwords in the modern languages are
spelled this way too. Another common departure from classical
usage was to write ci instead of ti before a vowel”for example con-
sequencia instead of consequentia ˜consequence™”and once again
this is not unconnected with the way such words were normally pro-
nounced in the Middle Ages. These spellings and pronunciations led
to a large number of words in modern English and French which
have retained the c in the spelling as consequence, difference,
absence and literally hundreds of others where the original Latin
had tia: consequentia, differentia, absentia. Praesentia ˜presence™ is
an example where both the the older ae and ti spellings have been
replaced by the medieval spelling pronunciation. Still, these are minor
differences, and anyone who can read classical Latin can easily read
texts in medieval spelling (although there are sometimes quite a few
other peculiarities that I have not mentioned).
The last example we will look at in connection with spelling is a
difference between our modern practice and the spelling in use both
in antiquity and during the Middle Ages. The reason for this differ-
ence is a small spelling reform for Latin which was made as late as
the sixteenth century. It concerned the letters j and v. The classical
system had no way of distinguishing [i] and [j] in spite of the fact
that both sounds existed in the language. They were both written i.
The words iustitia ˜justice™ and intellectus ˜intellect™ were spelled
with the same letter at the beginning, even though the pronuncia-
tion is [j] in the ¬rst word and [i] in the second. Another example is
the name Gaius Iulius Caesar, in which the i in Gaius and the ¬rst
i in Iulius are both pronounced [j].
Similarly, it was not possible to distinguish between [u] and [v]
(which by the way in early Latin was pronounced as a back semi-
vowel, i.e. like w in English). Both sounds were spelled with the same
letter; the [v] in uilla ˜villa™ is represented by the same letter as the [u]
in urna ˜urn™. However, the shapes of the letters varied. In ancient
Roman inscriptions the letters usually look exactly like our modern
capital I and V. During the Middle Ages different styles of handwriting

Latin and Europe

developed, which gradually gave rise to our small letters, in which the
two letters usually looked like modern i (most often, however, without
the dot) and u.In some styles,though,you also ¬nd the variants j and v,
but these were not used according to modern rules. In the sixteenth
century a French scholar had the brainwave of using u and i for the
vowel sounds and v and j for the consonants.This was a very good idea
which was adopted in the spelling of several modern languages,
including for example German and the Nordic languages. In this way,
the two new letters j and v were added to the alphabet, and they were
inserted into the alphabetical order immediately after the two corre-
sponding vowels. In English, these letters were also introduced, but
there are more consonants to worry about.The rare letter y (originally
a letter for a vowel in the Greek alphabet) is used for one sound, and j
for the other, as in yet and jet. This distinction did not exist in Latin.
The consonant that is denoted i or j was pronounced like the ¬rst
sound in yet.
When it comes to Latin, which the reform was really intended for,
this new spelling has never been completely accepted. The usual
modern spelling of Latin is a compromise in which the distinction
between u and v has been adopted but not the one between i and j.
It is this practice which we follow in this book, and so we make a
difference between villa and urna but not between iustitia and
intellectus.There are, however, many editions and dictionaries where
j is used and the spelling is consequently justitia and Julius for
example. Moreover, there are also many experts who do not like these
reforms at all, and hence still write uilla beside iustitia and Iulius. On
this point, then, there is still disagreement about how to spell Latin.
The controversy will soon be half a millennium old and may in due
course be resolved. Either way, Latin should survive a lot longer yet.

Books and scribes

In antiquity people wrote on papyrus, a material which in normal
conditions only lasts a couple of hundred years. As a result, hardly

A natural history of Latin

any texts other than inscriptions have survived from the classical era
around the birth of Christ. Most of what was written at that time was
obviously lost when the papyrus rotted. That we nonetheless still
have a considerable amount of ancient literature is due to the fact that
the books were often copied before they decayed, and so the text was
preserved for a bit longer. Fortunately, a new material, parchment,
came into use in late antiquity. This is made of the skin of animals,
and the sheets are stiff, often yellowish in colour, and very strong and
durable. They could not be rolled up, so instead the large sheets were
folded to make pages of a convenient size, which were then put into
bundles and stitched together down one side. The sewn-up spine was
in turn fastened to a hard cover. In this way the book was invented,
and in essence books are still made the same way today.
Books made of parchment caught on in about the fourth century ad.
Papyrus was still used for several centuries, but it gradually disap-
peared completely. It is true that the manufacture of parchment is by
comparison a time-consuming process, but the skin of domestic
animals could be found everywhere whereas papyrus had to be
imported from Egypt. As trade across the Mediterranean decreased
and eventually dried up almost completely, no papyrus came to
western Europe any more. This change in technology was very
much to Latin™s advantage. When someone copied a Latin text from
a roll of papyrus onto parchment, that text was able to survive for
several thousand years. The ancient texts that we still have are the
ones that were copied onto parchment. To make a copy was a consid-
erable investment of time and money, so it is not surprising that
much was not copied and disappeared forever. At least, though, we
have the books that the Romans themselves regarded as the best and
the most important, since they were obviously the ones that were
copied ¬rst.
Unfortunately, we do not have many parchment manuscripts that
were made in late antiquity. There are a few from the ¬fth century,
including a couple which contain Virgil™s Aeneid, but most have
disappeared with time.What we have instead are later copies of those
copies. Quite a number of works by the classical writers are preserved


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