A is for … the Ancient Roman Alphabet!

Ever wondered what Latin sounded like?

Here is how Martianus Capella, a writer of the early fifth century A. D., describes the phonetics of the Latin alphabet  (De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii 3.261; cf. Gramm. VIII 307-8 K.):

A sub hiatu oris congruo solo spiritu memoramus.
B labris per spiritus impetum reclusis edicimus;
C molaribussuper linguae extrema appulsis exprimitur;
D appulsu linguae circa superiores dentes innascitur;
E spiritus facit lingua paululum pressiore,
F dentes labrum inferius deprimentes,
G spiritus cum palato; H contractis paululum faucibus ventus exhalat,
I spiritus prope dentibus pressis.
K faucibus palatoque formatur.
L lingua palatoque dulcescit.
M labris imprimitur.
N lingua dentibus appulsa collidit.
O rotundi oris spiritu comparatur.
P labris spiritus erumpit,
Q appulsu palati ore restricto.
R spiritum lingua crispante corraditur.
S sibilum facit dentibus verberatis.
T appulsu linguae dentibusque impulsis extunditur.
V ore constricto labrisque prominulis exhibetur.
X quicquid C atque S formavit exsibilat.
Y appressis labris spirituque procedit.
Z vero idcirco Appius Claudius detestatur, quod dentes mortui, dum exprimitur, imitatur.

In the translation of W. Harris Stahl, R. Johnson, and E. L. Burge –

We utter A with the mouth open, with a single suitable breath.
We make B by the outburst of breath from closed lips.
C is made by the back teeth brought forward over the back of the tongue.
D is made by bringing the tongue against the top teeth.
E is made by a breath with the tongue a little depressed.
F is made by the teeth pressing on the lower lip.
G, by a breath against the palate.
H is made by an exhalation with the throat a little closed.
I is made by a breath with the teeth kept close together.
K is made with the palate against the top of the throat.
L is a soft sound made with the tongue and the palate.
M is a pressing together of the lips.
N is formed by the contact of the tongue on the teeth.
O is made by a breath with the mouth rounded.
P is a forceful exhalation from the lips.
Q  is a contraction of the palate with the mouth half-closed.
R is a rough exhalation with the tongue curled against the roof of the mouth.
S is a hissing sound with the teeth in contact.
T is a blow of the tongue against the teeth.
U is made with the mouth almost closed and the lips forward a little.
X is the sibilant combination of C and S.
Y is a breath with the lips close together.
Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Prose and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A is for … the Ancient Roman Alphabet!

  1. notesoworthy says:

    Some are so confusingly similar to others!


  2. Who are W. Harris Stahl, R. Johnson, and E. L. Burge? There are some subjectivity issues here: for example note the silent substitution of U for V. Furthermore, both the original and the translation have other subjectivity issues of course, such as date and location and educational background, and must not be taken as definitive for any other date and location for the pronunciation of Latin. But it is interesting and fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. They are the editors of ‘Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts’, vol. II, New York 1977. As for the subjectivity issues – yes, well. Leaving it as ‘V’ in a translation would give the wrong impression, of course, as the sound, if not downright ‘oo’ was closer to ‘wh’ than ‘v’ (if you use the English proxy). Is it accurate? Well, who knows. There will have been so many changes and variations across time and space… But it’s one snapshot and one attempt at conceptualising it, so as ‘find of the week’, I thought it’s worth sharing. (I also share your concerns, of course. 🙂 )


  4. KM says:

    Reblogged this on Katherine McDonald and commented:
    Great post yesterday by Peter Kruschwitz, giving one Roman’s account of the phonology of Latin. The explanations range from pretty much accurate, to fairly nonsensical (what’s going on with G?). I rather enjoyed the reason for the “abhorrence” of Z as well, which seems to abandon the scientific description all together. Thanks for sharing, Peter!


  5. Brilliant, isn’t it? And there’s that slightly altered version in the Grammatici Latini. (The ‘g’ sound almost seems to resemble ‘ch/gh’, doesn’t it? Very strange.) Glad you liked it! 🙂


  6. chattykerry says:

    Great post, as always. My Latin master had a theory about pronunciation and I have stuck with his theory, whether it was correct or not. It is always difficult with a dead language which must have had many dialects.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh absolutely, yes. But it’s great fun to see a native speaker without phonetic training trying to explain it, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. chattykerry says:

    In Egypt, my regular taxi drivers made me say words over and over again until I got the guttural sound correct. Practice makes perfect!


Comments are closed.