Introduction to Latin/Alphabet and Pronunciation

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The Latin Alphabet[edit | edit source]

The Latin alphabet is ultimately a derivative of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. The Romans learned how to write from the Etruscans, who themselves learned to write from the Greeks, who learned to write from the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were, in turn, probably inspired by the Egyptians. Of course, many changes took place as the alphabet idea moved from culture to culture. For example, the Phoenician "alphabet" only contained consonants, and the Greeks included vowels in their alphabet. Let it suffice to say that our alphabet, which is basically the modern Latin alphabet, is deeply rooted in antiquity.

The Latin alphabet is, more or less, our modern alphabet minus j and w (which were added in medieval times). Also, the letters v and i stood for both consonant and vowel sounds. v, when a consonant, is usually written as a v; when it is a vowel, it is usually written as a u. i does not change, although in some modern texts the consonantal i is written as j. The letter k is rare. The letters y and z were used in the spelling of foreign loan words (typically Greek words).

Latin Vowels[edit | edit source]

Long Vowels

a as in "father"

e as in "hey"

i as in "antique"

o as in "over"

u as in "moon"

Short Vowels

a as in second a in "Clara"

e as in "vet"

i as in "hit"

o as in "off"

u as in "put"

  • note: y is equivalent to Greek Υ υ (upsilon) which is pronounced like French tu

In practice this sound was difficult for Latin speakers who spoke no Greek and generally became identical with i.

Diphthongs[edit | edit source]

Latin has six diphthongs (diphthong - combination of two vowel sounds pronounced as one syllable).

ae as in ai in "aisle" puellae , irae

au as in ou in "house" audeo , aut

ei as in "deign" deinde

eu e + u (hard to describe this sound) best sound would be French "eu" like "eh-oo" seu

oe as in oi in "oink" coepit , proelia

ui u + i () huic , cui (like muy in Sp.; this diphtong is rare; only 5-6 words make use of it; everywhere else it is separated into two syllables)

Consonants[edit | edit source]

Basically the same as English. Only differences will be pointed out.

bs and bt are pronounced as ps and pt

      e.g. - urbs , obtingere

c is always hard

      e.g. -- civis is pronounced "kee-wiss".

g is always hard


h is fully pronounced and never 'silent'.

i before a vowel at the beginning of the word or between two vowels within a word is pronounced like the English y

     e.g. - Iulius is pronounced as "yoo-lee-us"

q followed by u is pronounced as "qw"

     e.g. - homoque is pronounced as "ho-mo-kweh"

r is trilled like the Italian or Spanish "r"

s is always as in "see" and never voiced as in "wise".

t is always as in "tree"

v is like the English "w"

     e.g. - vivit is pronounced as "wee-wit"

x is like Greek Ξ ξ (xi) and is always 'ks'

z is rare, and its pronunciation remains controversial much as it was for the Greek Ζ ζ (zeta)


ch represents Greek Χ χ (chi) and is nearly equal to a hard Latin "c", the only difference being that ch is aspirated (it is pronounced with an additional puff of air). Compare cat (c is aspirated) with ducks (c is not aspirated). Although many scientists and linguistics believe that the -ch (as in pulchra) was pronounced as in Greek (or nowadays German -ch). The origin of the word "pulchra" is still unknown.

ph represents Greek Φ φ (phi) and is usually pronounced by modern speakers as English "f". Actually, like ch, it is pronounced as an aspirated "p". Compare pin (p is aspirated) with tip (p is not aspirated).

th represents Greek Θ θ (theta) and is usually pronounced by modern speakers as th in "think" (never th as in "that"). Actually, th too represents an aspirated consonant. Compare tip (t is aspirated) with hit (t is not aspirated).

Accent[edit | edit source]

Latin (as compared to Greek and other languages) has very simple rules for accentuation.

1. In a disyllabic word (word with two syllables), the accent always falls on the first syllable.

e.g - laudo , pono, vivo

2. In a word with three or more syllables: the accent is on the next to last syllable if that syllable is long or a diphthong; otherwise, the accent falls on the third to last syllable.

e.g. - patria , hominum , pecunia


Exercises[edit | edit source]

Pronunciation

Pronounce the following in Latin:

homo, sum, nihil, tu, laudatam, vinum, Bithynia, Bacchus, dux, nutrix, populus, iuvare, Lucius, quoque, puellae, aedes, luna, charta, cui, huic, deinde, auderis, laudatur, proelia, urbs, orbis

Write an accent mark for the following words (in which long vowels will be indicated by a capital letter):

moenia

pecUnia

hOmo

hOminem

sumus

sItis

necesse

cIvitAs

illIus