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How to Pronounce Latin

Updated on May 29, 2012
Brainy Bunny profile image

Brainy Bunny has a master's degree in Greek and Latin Philology, with particular interest in historical linguistics and ancient religions.

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Are you interested in learning Latin? Maybe you know a few phrases, but don't want to sound ignorant if you mispronounce them. Or maybe you'd like to sing with a church choir, but what they're singing doesn't sound like what your Latin teacher drilled into you in tenth grade. There are two major systems of pronunciation for Latin: classical and ecclesiatical.

Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin
Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin

The most comprehensive scholarly guide to Latin pronunciation ever published

 

Classical Latin Pronunciation

Classical Latin is the Latin of Cicero and Caesar; of Vergil, Horace, and Ovid. If you learned Latin in high school, this is what you learned. To learn the basic rules of Classical Latin pronunciation, you must remember that Latin is a phonetic language. (There are no tricks, like silent "k" or six different ways to pronounce "ough," as in English.) Some letters may not make the sound you expect, but their sound will always be the same. In the charts below, the phonetic spelling uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). After that comes an example of the sound in American English, and then a Latin word using the letter.

Latin Vowels

Latin vowels can be either short or long. Most Latin textbooks mark naturally long vowels with a macron, like this: ā. Once you have studied Latin for some time, you will no longer need macrons, because you will have memorized which vowels are long and which are short. If you ever forget, you can check a Latin dictionary.

Vowels
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
ā
/ɑ:/
father
avāritia
a
/a/
hot
animus
ē
/e:/
hey
ēducātiō
e
/ɛ/
let
epistula
ī
/iː/
marine
mīrābilis
i
/ɪ/
thin
familia
ō
/oʊ/
go
nōn
o
/ɔː/
off
opus
ū
/uː/
crude
ūtilitās
u
/ʊ/
put
lupus
y
/y/
[doesn't exist in English; similar to French u]
tyrannus

Some naturally short vowels can become long by position, which can affect pronunciation because of Latin's stress accent. A short vowel becomes long by position when it is followed by two or more consonants or the letter x. In two-syllable words, the accent is on the first syllable (e.g., salvus is /ˈsalwʊs/). In longer words, the accent is on the penultimate syllable if that syllable is long (e.g., secundus is /sɛˈkʊndʊs/). However, the accent is on the syllable that is third from the end if the penultimate syllable is short (e.g., sententia /sɛnˈtɛntɪa/).

Latin Diphthongs

A diphthong is simply the pronunciation of two vowels next to each other as one. We do this in English with words such as coin and house.

Diphthongs
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
ae
/aɪ/
high
aeternus
au
/aʊ/
cow
auxilium
ei
/eɪ/
rein
peior
eu
/y/
[doesn't exist in English; similar to French u]
seu
oe
/ɔɪ/
coin
coepit
ui
/wɪ/
twit
huius

Latin Consonants

Many consonants in Latin are pronounced the same as their counterparts in English. The exceptions are:

Single Consonants
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
c
/k/
car (never as in city)
cīvis
g
/g/
good (never as in gentle)
gladius
i
/j/
yacht (Latin uses it as a consonant at the beginning of words before a vowel)
iānua
r
/r/
N/A (trilled, similar to Spanish)
Rōma
s
/s/
sit (never as in easy)
salvus
t
/t/
tent (never as in mention)
toga
v
/w/
will (never as in victory)
vīnum
x
/ks/
hex (never as in exert)
exemplum
Two Consonants
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
bs
/ps/
rips
urbs
bt
/pt/
apt
obtusus
ch
/kʰ/
echo (never as in chew)
schola
ph
/pʰ/
top hit (never as in sophomore)
philosophia
th
/tʰ/
hit him (never as in theater or there)
thema

Doubled consonants were pronounced twice. For example, in mittō, the syllables split thus: mit-tō, and the t is pronounced with both syllables. This can happen with the liquid consonants l, m, n, and r, the plosives d, p, and t, and the sibilant s. Some examples are capillus, summa, annus, and oppugnō.

Ecclesiastical Latin Pronunciation

The pronunciation of Ecclesiastical Latin, or Church Latin, as it is sometimes called, is marked by a softening of some consonants and lengthening of some vowels. This occurred over the course of several hundred years of political and religious turmoil in Europe. When Europe finally came up for air, this is what had happened:

Vowels and Diphthongs
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
a
/ɑ:/
father
pater
e, ae, oe
/ɛ/
let
et, caelum
i, y
/iː/
marine
filius, martyr
o
/ɔː/
off
dominus
u
/uː/
crude
mulier

Other diphthongs are pronounced as if the vowels were separate.

Consonants
IPA Pronunciation
English Example
Latin Example
c or cc (before a, o, or consonants)
/k/
car
corpus
c or cc (before any other vowel or the diphtongs ae or oe)
/tʃ/
church
caelum, ecce
g (before a, o, or other consonants)
/g/
garden
gloria
g (before any other vowel or the diphthong ae)
/dʒ/
George
angelus
h (in nihil or mihi only)
/k/
nickel
nihil, mihi
h (in other cases)
silent
hour
hora
j (consonantal i)
/j/
yes
Jesus
s (between vowels)
/z/
easy
misericordia
v (in the beginning of a syllable)
/v/
vain
ave
ch
/k/
kite
machina
gn
/ɲ/
N/A (similar to signor in French)
regnum
sc
/ʃ/
shy
cresco
th
/t/
Thomas
catholicus
ti (before any vowel)
/tsi/
itsy-bitsy
gratia
xc (before e, ae, oe, i, or y)
/kʃ/
action
excelsus

Singing in Latin

When singing in Ecclesiastical Latin, keep your vowels pure. If singing a vowel blend such as au on more than one note, hold the first vowel longer and move on to the second vowel sound just before moving to the next syllable.

Singers' Liturgical Latin
Singers' Liturgical Latin

This book provides detailed pronunciation rules and common sacred texts, along with IPA transcriptions and English translations.

 

Bibliography

Donovan, Colin B. "Ecclesiastical Latin." http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/ecclesiastical_latin.htm

Palmer, L.R. The Latin Language. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

Wheelock, Frederic M. Wheelock's Latin Grammar. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

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    • Brainy Bunny profile image
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      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Gosh, Krystal. It's not every day a gal gets a compliment like that! Thank you very much.

    • KrystalD profile image

      KrystalD 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      Wow. The fact that you could handle this topic so well is impressive. I think communicating this system took a lot of organization and understanding. I am definately humbled. Voting up!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
      Author

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you, raggededge. I am so glad to see that you think Latin is logical; so many people fear languages with case systems, but the structure of the language really is quite simple once you get the hang of it.

    • theraggededge profile image

      Bev 5 years ago from Wales

      What a difficult topic to tackle! I did Latin in school and loved its logic and simplicity - I'd hate to have to explain pronunciation though! Well done on a really useful Hub.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
      Author

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Funny, Judi Bee! We always had to read aloud, especially when we were doing poetry. At least I never had to dress up in a toga and recite from memory; I have friends with horror stories like that.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
      Author

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thanks, Alicia! I'm glad the part about Ecclesiastical Latin was helpful; I'm a classicist by training, but I figured that it would be useful to contrast the two systems.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Very interesting, although the thing I liked most about Latin at school was that we didn't speak it very much! I hated speaking in French, it put me off, so I preferred Latin, which we tended to just read and write. Do remember some of these rules though.

      Voted up etc.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for this useful reference hub, Brainy Bunny. I did study Latin in high school, which I enjoyed. I do sometimes sing songs in Ecclesiastical Latin, too, so I found your hub very interesting. I'll be reading it again to try to absorb all the information.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image
      Author

      Brainy Bunny 5 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      Thank you, calomarketing. I'm glad you find it useful.

    • calomarketing profile image

      Daniel Cavazos 5 years ago from El Paso, TX

      Nice work, I'll have to print this for later reference. Thank you!