Latin is a descendent of Indo-European, the parent-language to many languages, including Greek, Sanskrit and many Old Nordic languages. Latin is a very useful language to learn because it is also one of the many parents of English. Learning Latin helps you better understand English, since it helps you see where English words come from. It also gives you a better grasp of grammar, since Latin is a very complex language and the endings of words change depending on their role in the sentence; working in such a framework will lead you examine the grammatical correctness of your English sentences – even if only subconsciously. Finally, Latin is a very interesting language to learn, because of its place in history and literature. By learning Latin, you open a gateway to some of the most important leaders, poets, philosophers of Western Civilization.
The Latin alphabet is no different from the English alphabet. In fact, the alphabet we use is the Latin alphabet. This is good news for you, since you will have one less thing to learn. Latin pronunciation differs slightly from English pronunciation, however, so read on to learn how to pronounce Latin words.
Consonants in Latin are pronounced essentially the same as English, with a few exceptions. Let’s go through each consonant and note any exceptions:
B – The Latin ‘B’ is the same sound as the English letter, EXCEPT when followed by ‘S’ or ‘T’; it was then pronounced as a ‘P’. Thus –bs is pronounced –ps, and –bt is pronounced –pt.
C – The Latin ‘C’ is always hard, like the ‘C’ in car. If it helps, think of it as a ‘K’
D – Pronounced the same as in English.
F – Pronounced the same as in English.
G – The Latin ‘G’ is always hard, like the ‘G’ in gum.
H – The Latin ‘H’ is aspirated, like in English, but more softly.
I – In English, ‘I’ is a vowel, but in Latin, it is both a vowel and a consonant. You will know it is a consonant when it starts a word (as in Iulus), or when it is between two vowels (as in eiectus). In both cases, pronounce it like a ‘Y’.
J – There is no ‘J’ in Latin. Sometimes you will see it (especially in ecclesiastical texts) when it is used instead of ‘I’ to indicated a consonantal sound. If you see it, pronounce it like a ‘Y’, never like the ‘J’ in Jim.
K – ‘K’ is pronounced the same as in English. It is, however, a very rare letter in Latin. One of the only word it occurs in is Kalends – meaning the ‘first of the month’.
L – Pronounced the same as in English.
M – Pronounced the same as in English.
N – Pronounced the same as in English.
P – Pronounced the same as in English.
Q – ‘Q’ is always followed by a ‘U’. Together they were pronounced –kw as in ‘quotient’.
R – ‘R’ is rolled, like in Spanish and Italian.
S – ‘S’ is always pronounced like it is in secure. It is never pronounced like a –z, like the second s in season.
T – ‘T’ is always hard like it is in tree, never soft like in condition.
V – ‘V’ is pronounced like the English ‘W’, never like it is in vine.
W – There is no ‘W’ in Latin.
X – ‘X’ is always pronounced –ks, as in axis.
Z – ‘Z’ is pronounced as in English, but it occurs only in words imported into Latin from other languages (mostly Greek).
Latin vowels have only two pronunciations; they are either long or short. In some texts the length of the vowels is indicated with marks above the letter. Thus, short vowels are denoted by micron, a dipped dash above the letter (e.g. ă), while long vowels are denoted by a macron, a bar over the letter (e.g. ā). In these lessons, we will indicate usually indicate long vowels, using a macron. It is important to know the lengths of vowels and syllables generally, because the length of a syllable will sometimes change the meaning of words. For example liber means a book, while līber is an adjective which means free. See the table below for how each is pronounced:
|A||ă – as in cap: Latin alta||ā – as in father: Latin āvoco|
|E||ĕ – as in set: Latin ferre||ē – as in whey: Latin ēduco|
|I||ĭ – as in sit: Latin digitus||ī – as in chino: Latin cupīdo|
|O||ŏ – as in frog: Latin modus||ō – as in drove: Latin ōrdō|
|U||ŭ – as in put: Latin onus||ū – as in include: Latin nūbō|
|Y||‘Y’ is pronounced as a French ‘U’, whether short or long.|
Diphthongs are combinations of vowels that create a different sound, but that remain a single syllable. An English example would be the –ou sound in loud. Latin has six diphthongs, and they are always long. You will find them listed below, along with how to pronounce them:
ae – pronounced like the English word eye.
au – pronounced like the English word loud.
ei – pronounced like the English word feign.
eu – there is no English equivalent. Pronounce the sounds separately but quickly.
oe – pronounced like the English word coil.
ui – pronounced like the English word gooey but very quickly (also like the Spanish muy). ‘UI’ only occurs as a diphthong in cuius, huius, huic, cui, hui – in other instantces, the ‘U’ and ‘I’ are pronounced separately.
The number of syllables in a Latin word is equal to its number of vowels and diphthongs. Thus, praestiti is divided prae-sti-ti and has three syllables.
In Latin syllables have quantities – they are either long or short. Some are long by nature – they consist of a diphthong or long vowel. Others are long by position – when a short vowel is followed by two consonants or –x.
Long by nature: cae-dō (both long)
Long by position: cōn-ser-vō (all long)
The quantity of a syllable is essential in determining where the stress accent falls.
In Latin, a specific syllable of each word is emphasized. We say that this syllable is accentuated, or that that is where the accent falls. Latin accentuation is based on the quantities of the syllables at the end of a word. There are X rules for accentuation, and they are always followed:
- In a two-syllable word, the accent always falls on the first syllable. Thus: lau-do.
- In words of three syllables or more, the accent falls on the next to last syllable (the penult – for penultimate) if that syllable is long – if it is not long, the accent falls on the syllable before the next to last (the antepenult). Thus: con-ser-vat,
You now have the basics to begin your study of Latin. In the next lesson, we will cover some basics of Latin grammar – declensions, conjugations and other grammatical essentials – so that you know what to expect, and then we will start nouns of the first declension.