What did Latin sound like?
During my thirty-year career teaching Latin, people asked me one question more than any other. We know how the Roman Catholic Church pronounces Latin, but how did the original native speakers, the Ancient Romans, pronounce it? Obviously, we can’t go back two thousand years in a time machine and make a tape recording, but we can reconstruct the sounds of the spoken language by following many clues.
Firstly, Latin poetry was written to be read aloud. We should therefore expect an abundance of sound effects in the Aeneid, written by Virgil (70-19 BC), during the last eleven years of his life. A common literary device was onomatopoeia, where the sound of a word is strongly suggestive of its meaning. Simple examples in English might be: crash; thud; hoot; wail. In the first book of the Aeneid, Virgil describes a storm at sea, which swallows up an entire ship: “torquet agens circum et rapidus vorat aequore vertex.” (I: 117). “The peaked wave spins and twists it round, snatches it and swallows it up in the sea.” If we were to insist on the English convention of pronouncing the letter v as in English, all Virgil’s mastery of onomatopoeia would go for nothing. If, however, we treat the letter v as a consonantal u and pronounce it as a w, we can hear the “bloop bloop bloop” of the sinking ship in the last three words. This tells us that the joke in “1066 and All That” about Caesar describing his enemies as “weeny, weedy and weaky” is not quite as loony as it first appears (he described his lightning-quick victory at the Battle of Zela 42 BC in the famous words “veni, vidi, vici: I came; I saw: I conquered”).
Secondly, the Romans, just like everybody else, made spelling mistakes. There is a wall in Pompeii, covered in Latin graffiti. The name “Hortesius” is mentioned. We know there was a common family name “Hortensius” in Ancient Rome, but the Pompeian graffiti artist spelled it as he heard it. This goes a long way to explaining how the Latin word for “table” (mensa) ended up as “mesa” in modern Spanish, as well as the Italian istruzioni, which in English has its N.
Thirdly, there is transliteration, where Roman names, originally written in the Latin alphabet, are represented in Ancient Greek texts by spellings using the Greek alphabet. The most famous instance is “Cicero” the famous Roman orator and politician. Was he “Kikero” or “Sisero”? In modern English, we call him “Sisero”, but the Ancient Greek historian Polybius used the Greek letter kappa to tell his readers about “Kikero”.
I’m going to leave it at that for now and wish everyone well. Stay safe.
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