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Words in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Portrait of Julius Caesar, Mark James Miller
Julius Caesar

How did ancient Romans speak? According to scholars, there is no unequivocal answer to this question. The Latin language has changed a lot during the course of centuries. Linguists believe that the ancient pronunciation may have been very different from the one we know today.

How great Roman writers used the Latin language is, in fact, well known. Their works have survived in many copies. Although sometimes rewritten with errors, they are trusted sources of knowledge. We are used to the Latin of the Catholic Church, but there is no certainty that the pronunciation used from the Middle Ages to the present day resembles the ancient one.

Usually, when examining spoken and written language, it is possible to see the compatibility between graphemes (signs) and phonemes (sounds). Thus, we assign a specific sound for each letter. The same applies to Latin. The language used by the church does not come from ancient Latin but a later medieval version, close to the Romance languages ​​(Italian, French or Spanish). Therefore, many of the sounds do not correspond to what we would describe as primal. This fact had already been pointed out by humanists in the 15th century when they compared literary testimonies with other written sources (including inscriptions on tombs). They noticed that the way of reading Latin that had survived until their time differed significantly from the way of reading according to the rule: each grapheme had a corresponding phoneme. Writers and scholars began in-depth analyses, the fruit of which resulted in the so-called restored pronunciation. Some of the differences in articulation identified as a result of the research are extraordinary. The letter c had always been spoken in a hard way as [k]. The same with the letter g – the word genius was not pronounced like [ˈdʒiːniəs]. In all cases, it was read as in the word [spaghetti] (according to the rules of the Italian pronunciation the digraph gh, we should read as [g]).

There was no phonetic difference between u and v, so verum could be read as [uerum]. The letter y, inherited from the Greeks, was read as [u]. The diphthong sc was read as [sk], so pisces should be pronounced as [piskes] (fish), not using today’s Italian [sh]. The digraph gn was read so that both sounds [g] and [n] were heard (Italians today read gn as [n(j)]). The same was with two letters ae in caesar – it was read as it was written, so it should be [kaesar]. Same situation with ti – [amicitia], not like today’s amicizia [amiˈtʃittsja]. On the other hand, the diphthong ns was read without the letter n, which is why the consul in ancient Rome was [kosul]. Let us forget about Ave Caesar and start proclaiming [Aue kaesar]!

Author: Monika Fejfer
  • Giacomo Alibrandi Scritto e parlato [in:] Civilta’ romana, bimonthly journal about history of Ancient Rome, nr 10, February – March 2020.

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