Pronunciation of Latin
by Michael Martin
Today, there are two main ways of pronouncing Latin. The first of these is the Classical Pronunciation, which is the way we think Latin was spoken prior to around the third century or so. The second, and the one this web site is really concerned with, is Ecclesiastical Pronunciation, which is the way Latin has been spoken from somewhere in the 3rd/4th centuries down to present day and is the way Latin is spoken in the Church. The two methods are very, very close to one another. Indeed if one is familiar with one method, only a little effort is needed to be able to use the other.
Guide to the Pronunciation of Ecclesiastical Latin
Since English borrowed its alphabet from Latin, the pronunciation of individual Latin letters is close to that of English. In fact Latin is generally easier than English to pronounce since Latin does not have silent letters nor has the peculiar diphthong shifts of English (i.e. rough and through are pronounced very differently!). About the only difficultly is the need to distinguish between long and short vowels. There are no simple clues for the novice as to whether a vowel is long or short . It simply has to be memorized. However, with practice, this too becomes easy over time and a certain intuitive pattern will emerge as one's vocabulary expands. A good Latin dictionary that marks long and short vowels will make life much easier. It is recommended that the novice look up unfamiliar words to ensure correct pronunciation.
Every Latin word has as many syllables as it does vowels or diphthongs. (Diphthongs are double vowels which form one sound. The most common Latin diphthongs are ae, oe, and au.) Unlike English, which has silent letters, in Latin each consonant, vowel and diphthong is pronounced separately. Peccata is thus pronounced pec-ca-ta and not pec-a-ta. Tuum is pronounced tu-um (too-um), and not as toom.
The rule for where the accent or stress in a Latin word goes is also straight forward. If the word has only two syllables, the accent always falls on the first syllable. For example, amo is pronounced as AH-moe, not ah-MOE. If the word has three or more syllables, then where the stress is applied depends upon whether the syllable second to the last has a long vowel or not. If the second to last syllable has a long vowel in it, then the accent is placed on that syllable. If the second to the last syllable has a short vowel, then the previous syllable (the third syllable from the end). For example, peccata is pronounced pe-CAH-ta, since the a in the second syllable is long, but nomine is pronounced NOH-mi-neh, since the i of the second syllable is short. As I said, a good dictionary is most helpful here.
Pronunciation of the Letters
Since English borrowed its alphabet from Latin, the pronunciation of individual Latin letters is close to that of English. The differences are mainly the vowels and a few consonants.
Long Short A as in father A as in Dinah E as in they E as in met or pet I as in machine I as in pit or hit O as in note O as in off U as in rude U as in put
The distinction between a short or a long A is how long the vowel is actually pronounced. The long A is simply held longer that a short A, Ahhhhhhh verses ah.
Consonants are "hard", but some consonants take a hard form in front of some vowels and a soft form in front of other vowels:
These consonants are hard before a, o, u, au And these are soft consonants before ae, e, oe, i: C = k as in cot C = ch as in chain CC = kk as in accord CC = tch as in catchy SC = sk as in tabasco SC = sh as in sheep G = g as in go G = soft g as in gentle
GN = "ni" as in onion (ny like sound)
TI - when followed by a third vowel becomes a tsee sound, as in tsetse fly
Sometimes one will see a "j" in Latin. Technically Latin has no letter J. It was introduced in the 13th century or thereabouts to differentiate between the vowel i and the consonant i. The consonantal i is like our y. "Major" in Latin is pronounced as MAH-yor. Until this last century, most printed Latin texts used the j to indicate the different sounds. Today the j's are usually replaced with the more classical i's.
ae - as "ay" in say au - as "ou" in house oe - as "ay" in say
In English, word order is crucial. Dog bites man means something very different than man bites dog. In English, the word order distinguished who did what to whom. In Latin, it is the ending of the word that indicates who did what to whom. Vir (man) mordet (bites) canem (dog), vir canem mordet, canem vir mordet, canem mordet vir, mordet vir canem, and mordet canem vir all mean the same thing, man bites dog.