What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know

What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know


Rome fell in the year 476. The microphone wasn’t invented until the 1870’s. That’s quite a gap. And yet we still know how the old Romans pronounced
their Latin. Prove it? Okay! Catholic school. Literature class. My teacher is Father, uh… let’s call him
Father F. A fellow language-head himself, Father F has a much fuller experience bar
than me. Respect. It’s first thing in the morning, and that
schoolroom sunlight is barely starting to flip the activation switches in my brain. Languagey words drift in from across the class. “Consonants”, “Italian”, “pronunciation”…
up goes my sensor. One kid’s over there talking with the father. Best I can recall, it went like this. “So, uhm, how do we know what Latin sounded
like? I always thought Caesar’s quote was vennee
veedee veechee, but some Latin student told me v’s were w’s and c’s were k’s.” “Hah, no. Cmon, can you imagine any good Italian saying
wennee, weedee, weekee?” I’m sitting there, sure this is wrong somehow. See, my first linguistic obsession was reading
up on how Latin became the Romance languages. So why was I suddenly speechlessly tongue-tied? Well, young self, it took years, but I’m back
to help. We think we know what Caesar’s Latin sounded
like, and that wasn’t it. We know because, well, sometimes they told
us. Quintilian was a smart guy from Roman Spain
who moved to Rome, managed to survive the off-the-wall Year of the Four Emperors and
then founded a school of rhetoric. Also, he hated the letter k. “So k, I think shouldn’t be used at all…
the letter c keeps its strength before all the vowels.” If he’s saying c always made a k sound, that means it didn’t have that second soft pronunciation it does in English or Italian. But that’s one grammarian’s say-so. Things
could look different when all the evidence comes in. Which is exactly what one Czech
linguist claims about the letter “r”. Your Latin textbook says it’s a trill. She argues
it’s a tap (“eddeh”, “re”). We’re just going to have to piece the evidence
together ourselves, starting with ancient authors writing in “good” Latin. The first
clue they give us is the alphabet, which was meant to fit Latin sounds. You hear that,
English?!? So when they wrote words differently, like
ÁNVS, ANVS and ANNVS, it’s a face-value hint that they they said them differently. Meaning
that long “aah”, which sometimes has this little “apex”, doesn’t sound the same as short
“ah”. And double consonants don’t sound like single consonants. In the hands of Virgil the epic poet, that
see-‘n-say alphabet is jammed into a precise structure: poetic meter. From that meter we
can figure out which syllables are long and which are short, which helps confirm which
vowels are long and which ones are short. So some i’s, sorry, “ee”‘s, are longer than
other “ee”‘s. But go look for short “ee” on inscriptions
and you’ll find something interesting. Or won’t find. Because right where it’s supposed
to be, there could be an “É” instead. Why? Well, it makes sense IF short “ee” wasn’t
only shorter than long “eeee” but it also had a different sound, a sound closer to “é”,
kind of “ihh”. Romans left even more clues when they marched
right into foreign language territory and got raided by Germanic tribes. Linguistic
raids. “We’re all taking words, guys! What do you want?” “Oy! Bring me back some wine!”
“I want a wall!” Yep, those are Latin words. And bad accents. And they make it look like
v’s were w’s at the time, something we’d already be suspicious of from poetry and word pairs. So yes, good Latin was spreading, but back
home the Roman rabble was busy turning it bad! Good Latin writers noticed though, and
even included characters speaking the bad Latin, the sermo vulgaris, especially for
a good laugh. But bad Latin can still be good evidence.
Down in Pompeii, before the tragedy, a random guy comes along and graffitis the place to
make sure we’d forever know that he stopped here with his brother. He does something vulgar
though. He drops the h in the word “here”. Ah, just a little mistake, right? Later you find a very dusty, very old book
full of cranky corrections, telling you that the word for old is “vetulus” not “veclus”,
to say “hostiae” not “ostiae”, and “hermeneumata” not “erminomata”. Come on, people! Get it
together! Looks like the Pompeii bros weren’t the only ones dropping their aitches. These mistakes are an interesting kind of
proof. I mean you probably wouldn’t beg me to stop dropping my h’s unless people were
indeed dropping their h’s. But what was once linguistic heresy eventually
turned into Romance… languages. These all have something to teach us about Latin. Wait, how can new languages be evidence for
a dead one? Take Spanish or Italian e. It comes from Latin “e”, but it also comes from
short “i” and not long “i”. Kind of like those inscriptions! It’s even more evidence for
short “ih” versus long “eeee”. Also, sí. Not… no, the LETTER c. The Romance
languages still love it, but before e’s and i’s it makes a soft sound. Except in Sardinian.
So while good Italians say vincere, in Sardinian, conquering is vìnchere. Now Romance palatalization
is another story, but historical linguistics says these languages are whispering at us,
“Latin c always sounded like k, but most of us changed.” They’re thumbs-upping Quintilian. See, younger self, all of this is why when
Romans talked about conquering, they said [‘wɪnkærɛ], and why Caesar’s phrase was
/we:ni:/, /wi:di:/, /wi:ki:/. Now before you go around enforcing reconstructed
pronunciation on us, getting the pope to speak like a real Caesar, think about Latin’s living
history. This was but one part of the story. A pretty amazing one though. Stick around and subscribe for language.

100 thoughts on “What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know

  1. I’m Italian and , since I study Latin at school, I can say that in this video there are many pronunciation mistakes

  2. To my knowlidge, the letter C in Latin is usually pornounced with a "kuh" sound but if it's in front of the letters E, AE, OE, I, Y then it's pronounced with a "cuh" sound and if it's in front of an H, it's scilent.

  3. As a Latin student at University I must unfortunately say… this is not fully correct.

    For example with the 'h'. They did not forget it, just stopped to write it in colloquial latin, because 'h' is actually an ancient greek aspirate and not even considered as consonant, what you can easily see by looking at Roman Metrics.

  4. Why is the English language still known as 'English' when it doesn't sound anything like it's much younger form of Anglo-Saxon whereas the language of Latin isn't continued being called Latin in its descendant languages, e.g. French, Italian, etc?
    If Italian is the closest living language to Vulgar Latin then why isn't Italian simply called Vulgar Latin or just Latin as its continued form?
    Like modern English is the continuation of Anglo-Saxon with outside influences yet we still call it The English language; why not the same for Latin with its descendant languages?

  5. I speak a Portuguese Dialect that is a type of old Portuguese that is more close to Latin than the modern portuguese and we have 3 sounds for "i" one is like i (short and sounds like "ei"), other is a "i" better pronounced that sounds like "ee" in english and the other is a longer "i" said in double like "ii". In other to say the last one we just change the tonality of the voice. Ex: the first "i" is low pitched while the second is high pitched

  6. As for vowel sounds, i dont know, but It seemed that diphthongs were not pronounced as a different sound and I was expecting this kind of information. But for consonant "c" i knew it: Caesar became Kaiser in german and kaisar (i think) in greek. Plus, in italian the cock goes "chicchirichì" pronounced keek kee ree keeh. And the cock in latin was "cicirrum" . If you put a k in place of c you'll get kikirrum, pronounced "kee keer room". That's an evidence of how C sounded like K. Plus, you didnt explained why V Is pronounced U or W. In latin letter U was added later on. So they only had V. For example VVA was pronounced ooh-wah. In italian It Is now UVA pronounced ooh-vah. I think that we can logically suppose that the further you go back in time, the more alphabets had Sense. One letter, One sound. One sound One letter. This characteristic Is now considered archaic , since the languages of nowadays have big differences between writing and pronunciation. So many people are obviously brought to think: how do you read this? Well a latin would probably answer: as It Is written. This kind of answer Is now possible only for very few languages like finnish for example, where One letter one sound One sound One letter Is practically a rule. In italian and in spanish It Is almost like that because we have very few rules and letters are almost never ignored in pronunciation. Plus both languages dont know vowel diphthongs (except for "gue que" in spanish where U Is used to create new sounds before E and I). But the funniest thing Is that in italian we continue using the church pronunciation of latin which was influenced buy different vulgar languages in Italy, while in the rest of the world they study latin with the most correct pronunciation! And latin people built everything in Italy first… Go figure…
    As for lettera R, I think that the pronunciation was like in italian. Maybe english or french can be impressed buy Rolling the RRRRR. But there are different intensities of rolling. Mono-vibrant Is the one that showed the video (in italian we find It before vowels), less intense. Then we have the rolling R, spanish or italian i think its quite the same. And finally double RR where you roll your tongue for a bit longer, and spanish people roll a single R as double many times. I think latin was similar. Interesting video really anyway!

  7. sardinian shamrdignian…they're more likely to have spoken a vulgar tongue due to island isolationism… Romanian c is vincere, and we are very close to latin as well

  8. "Italian" language actually didn't exist as the Italian language as we know today is the florentine variant of the Tuscan language. Tthen "Italian" has been imposed over Italy, when in reality it was from Florence and Tuscany only.

  9. Although I like your videos, this one is a miss.
    You throw away pronounciation rules just because you assume something should be pronounced differently, based on a language's descendants?
    Not educational…

  10. Quick question: I live in York (UK) which is built on an old Roman city-fort called Eboracum. There are still streets and businesses with that name. But I've heard it pronounced two different ways:

    ee-bore-ah-cum
    or
    eb-OH-ARE-cum

    Which, if either, is right? Or if you prefer, how would the Roman's have pronounced it?

  11. It's pretty easy to figure out the C in Latin was a K.
    In German there is a word that is directly taken from Latin. Kaiser.
    The usage of Kaiser for leader came originally from the Holy Roman Empire that copied it from Caesar. Even now in Dutch the word is still Keizer which is also pronounced with a pretty hard K instead of a C.
    That alone already made me understand it was pronounced Caesar instead of Seasar.

  12. You have pronounced "Vincere" very good. My compliments; you're the first english guy that has pronounced an italian word in the correct way.😂😂😂

  13. In my latin class we learned that the words are spelled differently because it tells you how long you say the syllable for and is especially helpful in poetry.

  14. So practically spoken all my Latin teachers didn't spell it correctly and neither does the Vatican….sed adeo prope lutum!

  15. My parents both graduated from high schools in Gary, Indiana during the 50s, (Lew Wallace and Horace Mann), before Gary turned to shit. They were required to take Latin class. They both said that during the time they hated it, but later in life it helped them to understand unfamiliar words.

  16. I am born in Romania, therefore I have some insight into this
    My belief is that it sounded more like:
    Weniiii Weidziii Wikiii
    In Romanian all C is K. There are still local dialects in S-V Romania where we say:
    "Venii" which is simple tense and means an action that happen in the past but just before this one so not a very long time ago (V is not as strong as in Vlad but softer, a little closer to W) and the two ii at at back means that it meant to be accentuated and long
    The entire thing in Romanian would sound like:
    Venii, vazui, învinsei!
    I just came, I just saw, I just won!
    Vwēnii, Vwëidzuii, învwinséi!

  17. I think the world would be more unified if we all have spoken just 1 language. i wouldn't complain if that language were Latin.

  18. This seems a bit misleading since there are different forms of Latin. For instance, ecclesiastical Latin is not the type of language that was spoken in everyday conversation.

  19. Has any Romance language preserved the supposed original 'v' sound (like 'w')? I find it a bit odd if it is only preserved in non-romance languages.

  20. In Hellinic schools at the Theoretical studied major, final year of Highschool, we study Latin! It's an amazing and fascinating language. I will never forget the things we had to learn: Cepheus et Cassiope Andromedam filliam habent. Cassiope, superba forma sua, nymphis se comparat. Neptunus, iratus….etc etc etc.
    😄💞💞

  21. just point here you get wrong LATIN LANGUAGES IS READ AS IS THE LETTERS:
    could be some difference but as in my italian if you write 'e' is 'e' and is stile 'e' if is 'eeeeeeeeee'.
    so don't write 'ee' as 'i' or you will get mad.
    and still OUR LANGUAGE ISN'T LATIN, don't take use a 'latin'…italians firstly were etruscans

  22. The Italian pronunciation of Latin used in the Catholic Church only really dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Pope Pius X recommended that it be used everywhere (though this was ignored in Germany and Poland). Prior to that, each country had its own pronunciation, which is why Caesar is pronounced See-zar in English.

  23. I'm Spanish and so proud of my roman blood and Spanish language. We the romances are the most beautiful languages.

  24. There are too many things you omitted in this video. The matter is not so simplistic. I agree on some points like the correct pronunciation of "c" but I must remind you that the S.P.Q.R. and the Roman Empire lasted for 12 centuries, in these centuries the pronunciation drastically changed as well as the language itself.

    I may address some examples: the well known genitive "pater familias", here the desinence for the genitive of familia is "-s" while in classical latin is "æ".
    Furthermore, there are lots of exceptions and special cases, such as "domus", "dies", the locative ablative, etc.
    There are also many Greek words in Latin which have been changed according to their particular phonetics: it's the case of Iovis, which cames from the Greek Ζεύς, but taking the "Z" like "dj".

    When you talk about "i", "e" and "r" you are getting confused. "i" and "e" are in Latin and Greek phonetics defined as weak vowels, fhat basically means that it's easy to interchange them or even drop one of them in particular situations.

    Furthermore, most of the phonetics rules of Ecclesiastical pronunciation DOES NOT apply to Italian. It is silly to think that Italians or priests have set up their own Latin, there is indeed evidence that the last Latin speakers (III – IV cent. AD) used that phonetics. I am referring to sounds like "-ti + vowel" or the dispute on the difference between "v" and "u" or the "æ" and "œ" diphthongs.

    What we know is that there exist plenty of "RIVEDUTÆ" pronunciation all over the world (about dozins), we are absolutely uncertain of the right evolution of Latin phonetics. But Latin is now a dead language, as such, it should not be pronounced ad libitum but following the rule that the majority of Latin scholars adopted, since there are centuries of history in which Latin developed, including the Middle Ages.

    Stop being lazy tongues! Learn Latin not thinking of "what phonetics is more similar to mine", English comes from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon, it is deeply different, so stop trying to bring it to your sounds.

  25. I much respect your research, but maybe both pronunciations can be right depending on the dialect and the Church may have simply chosen Its favorite one. Besides, English speakers like "w" sounding like "schwa" more than other Western Germanic languages. For example What/Wat/Was, in English/Dutch/German. And English may have done the same to Latin words too. Wine both in Dutch and German has a "v" sound: wein and wijn.

  26. Watching these videos is making me anxious and unsure of how to pronounce anything – what is really correct? Pronunciation seems to be as firm as quicksand. (For what it's worth, in my high school Latin I learned to say Caesar's famous line with 'w' sound – that that would be how Caesar himself spoke it.)

  27. It finally makes sense: I came, I saw… and I had 'to wiki' to learn about it too!
    All hail Cesar: father of children, son of parents, accomplished Roman emperor and inventor of the wiki concept!

  28. Everyone: not understanding most parts of the video
    People who are italian and study latin in highschool like me: laughing in spaghetti

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