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A complete guide to Classical Latin pronunciation: the sounds of Golden Age Latin

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I have now made a Classical Latin pronunciation series on Youtube! Check out the first three parts here:

These videos are suitable for complete beginners and advanced students alike. I speak 100% in Latin, with no English in these videos. This means I make no verbal descriptions of the sounds or comparisons to any variety of English. Instead, I focus completely on demonstrating the target sounds out loud and allowing for cycles of listen-and-repeat-after-me. There is no preamble, just straight-to-the-point practice. “Show, don’t tell.”

The three videos above teach the letters, vowels, diphthongs, consonants, and various combinations of letters. I make a quantitative distinction between long and short vowels. I follow the updated Calabrese 5-vowel system, which supercedes the vowel system from Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina as a more historically likely representation of Golden Age Latin vowels. I have not yet covered syllable length, accentuation or elision in these videos, but a follow-up that explains these syllabic features could be my video on Pronunciation Tips for Scansion.

Why I created this series

I had always assumed that there were already some very good “basic” pronunciation guides to Latin, but when I searched for one, all I came up with was:

  • People reading aloud inaccurate instructions from a textbook
  • Advanced, very accurate deep-dives into single phonemes

I have no complaints about the second category, the advanced deep dives, but they are not very beginner friendly because it is hard to get a systematic overview when all phonemes are split into separate videos.

I do, however, have serious complaints about the first category!

The instructions for pronouncing Latin commonly printed in textbooks are not completely accurate representations of Latin. Because textbooks are print resources and not audio resources, they rely on “close fit” comparisons to English sounds that don’t necessarily convey the true nature of Latin sounds. The result is that the beginner will inevitably speak with their native English accent while speaking Latin – because the instructions, delivered in English, can only reference English phonemes.

There are several key weaknesses to textbook written descriptions of Latin sounds:

  • For one thing, there are multiple varieties of English pronunciation, so instructions like “o as in pot” will be interpreted differently by a standard American and a Received Pronunciation (RP) English speaker.
  • Some textbooks reference particular dialects of English, saying for example that the “r is trilled, as in Scottish”. This instruction is totally useless for me because where I live (Australia) the Scottish accent is vanishingly rare. Almost everyone I have met on this continent who identifies as Scottish has an Aussie accent.
  • Textbooks are often outright misleading when explaining aspirated vs. unaspirated consonants. For example, they instruct students to pronounce “p as in pot” and “c as in cat”. Actually, both of those consonants correspond to the aspirated versions “ph” and “ch”, as English requires all initial p, t, c to be aspirated. You can test this yourself by holding a piece of paper to your lips and feeling it flutter with the puff of air that escapes as you say “pot” or “cat”, but not “spot” or “scatter”.
  • The instruction “ph as in uphill” and “th as in anthill” lead to students and teachers making bizarre “puh huh” and “tuh huh” sounds that don’t represent aspiration.
  • Very few beginner pronunciation tutorials even hint at the nasal final -m, and those that do tend to use verbal descriptions that are very hard to replicate independently (what does it mean to “nasalise” a vowel?). This phoneme is extremely common in Latin (think of all the -am and -um endings!). Knowing that the -m is barely pronounced but is mostly a marker for nasalisation helps explain why -m is ignored for elision; I think it is a shame that students only learn that sound exists in their final years when they are scanning poetry, and not throughout the course.
  • Many Latin teachers in these videos don’t know how to pronounce the Greek “y” and say “u” instead.
  • Many Latin teachers in these videos make “ū” into something that sounds like the Greek “y” – saying “ūnus” like “oonus”.

I hope that these videos fill the gap and provide a more Latin-through-Latin approach to explaining Latin pronunciation.

Key choices

Some people may be surprised that I don’t group “ui”, “eu” and “ei” on an equal level with the other diphthongs “ae, au, oe”. I did this because there are also words in which the combinations “ui”, “eu” and “ei” are treated as separate syllables. There are only about four words with “ui” as a diphthong, and three words with “ei” as a diphthong, so I deal with these diphthongs separately and show the specific words in which they do apply.

I also decided on the Koine Greek “zz” pronunciation of “z”, which may be suprising as others have chosen Attic “zd”. The reason is simple: the Attic pronunciation of zeta as “zd” had already evolved into Koine “zz” centuries before Golden Age Latin. It is completely anachronistic to mix 500 B.C. Attic pronunciation with 100 B.C.-100 A.D. Classical Latin – the time difference is huge. The Romans of the Golden Age would have been exposed to varieties of Koine pronunciation, not Attic. To recommend “zd” for zeta in the time of Augustus would be as weird as recommending 1500 A.D. medieval French phonology for French quotations inside a 20th century English novel. At least, in my opinion. I just don’t think it is likely a contemporary of Cicero ever heard “zd”, as it wouldn’t have been normal for the Greek speakers of the period.

My vices

On recording and editing these videos, I noticed that I have a tendency to shorten final -ī into a short -i, as in when I said “vēnī, vīdī, vīcī” or “Annō Dominī”. mea culpa! Those final -ī sounds should have been long.

Let me know if you hear any other vices in my pronunciation, and I will endeavour to work on those in my future videos.

About Carla Hurt

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." - Cicero, Ad Brutum. Carla is a secondary school Latin teacher. In 2013, she finished first-class Honours in Classics, writing a thesis on accusations of impiety among philosophers in Greece and Republican Rome. She loves ancient art, ancient history, theology and pretty much anything to do with the Romans.

One response »

  1. Pingback: A complete guide to Classical Latin pronunciation: the sounds of Golden Age Latin – Found in Antiquity – Library 9: Gladius Edition

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