How To Pronounce Classical Latin (& How We Know It’s Correct)
Wondering how to pronounce Latin? Then this Latin pronunciation guide is just what you need! I also explain exactly how we know how the Romans spoke Latin.
Latin may be a so-called “dead” language, but pronunciation is still important. Pronouncing Latin correctly helps you to have as authentic a Latin experience as possible. You can pick up on alliteration, jokes, and artistic phrasing . . . and you will feel more connected to the culture of the language you are learning.
Not to mention the pedagogical benefits. You will understand Latin better if you read it out loud to yourself and say words out loud as you study. Don’t underestimate the power of adding auditory input to your language learning.
Now let’s get straight to the point of this post. What is Classical Latin? How do you pronounce it? And how do we know this is how you pronounce it?
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What is Classical Latin pronunciation?
There are two main ways to pronounce Latin. The first is the classical pronunciation, an approximation of what Latin would have sounded like in Ancient Rome. This post is a guide to Classical Latin pronunciation.
The second way is the ecclesiastical pronunciation (or “Church Latin”). This is a system that developed over the centuries as Latin continued to flourish as the language of religion, education, and culture. As the name suggests, today this pronunciation is primarily linked to the Catholic Church.
Schools, universities, and textbooks usually focus on classical pronunciation. And this makes sense. After all, if you are reading ancient texts, the classical pronunciation is more chronologically appropriate.
As I mentioned above, this post focuses on Classical Latin. For phonological details I primarily rely on W. Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin. (More about this excellent resource below!)
But before we get too far in, let’s specify: Whose Latin are we imitating in our classical pronunciation?
Whose Latin are we imitating?
The Classical Latin pronunciation which we teach today is based on the speech of educated Romans in the 1st century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. We are trying to reconstruct the speech of Cicero and Vergil.
While this is a rather elitist approach, there is some sense to it. The texts that survive from the ancient world were overwhelmingly written by elite, educated Latin speakers. So the texts reflect this “privileged” pronunciation. This is what we have the most evidence for.
That said, in recent years marginalized communities have received more and more attention. Scholars analyze the spelling errors made on inscriptions and curse tablets and see how the ordinary Roman might have spoken. For instance, we know that H disappeared quickly among the illiterate.
Okay, now that we have talked about what classical Latin pronunciation is, it is time to move on to the actual sounds.
How to pronounce Latin vowels
Latin has five native vowels – A, E, I, O, and U – and one borrowed vowel, Y. Each vowel has a long version and a short version.
This vowel length is important, because it can completely change the meaning of a word. For example, liber (short i) means “book”, while līber (long i) means “free”.
In introductory textbooks and in dictionaries, a macron – a short bar above a letter (¯) – signals a long vowel. On this website, I also use macrons to distinguish long vowels from short. Click here to learn more about macrons.
Now that you know about the importance of vowel length, let’s go through the vowels one by one. All English equivalents are in American English, but I have included the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbol for reference.
|long Ā||like a in father||aː||māter|
|short A||like u in cup, but||ʌ||casa|
|long Ē||like a in save||eː||cēna|
|short E||like e in bed||ɛ||penna|
|long Ī||like ee in bee||iː||sīdus|
|short I||like i in pig||ɪ||vēritās|
|long Ō||like o in drove||oː||mōs|
|short O||like o in pot||ɔ||collis|
|long Ū||like oo in food||uː||mūs|
|short U||like u in put||ʊ||portus|
|long Ȳ||like u in French tu or German ü||yː||Dionȳsus|
|short Y||same as long ȳ, just slightly shorter||y||Aegyptus|
Latin Vowel Pronunciation Tips
A word of caution to English speakers: Latin vowels are pure and not diphthongized. What I mean by this is that in English, if we pronounce a long O or U, we tend to end it in a W sound. We end long E and I in a Y sound. This is not how you do it in Latin.
Say “drove” or “go” out loud and listen to the W sound. Now try saying “go”, but cutting off before you transition into the W. That is how you should pronounce the pure Latin ō. Don’t add the (English) W and (English) Y sounds.
A note on the vowel Y: Y is not a native Latin sound. The Romans used it to represent Greek upsilon (υ) in Greek loanwords. To pronounce this vowel, put your lips in the shape to say oo and then, keeping your lips in this shape, say ee instead.
It is probable that only highly educated Romans actually pronounced Y the Greek way. Most of the population would have substituted I or U (the two nearest Latin equivalents). So if you can’t pronounce Y, you are in good company!
How to pronounce Latin diphthongs
A diphthong is two vowels that are pronounced together as one sound. Latin has six diphthongs: ae, au, ei, eu, oe, and ui.
|ae||like i in high or y in cry||ae̯||caelum|
|au||like ow in how||au̯||nauta|
|ei||like ey in hey||ei̯||hei|
|eu||like Latin e and u said rapidly together||eu̯||heu|
|oe||like oy in boy||oe̯||foedus|
|ui||Latin u and i said quickly (rather like English gooey)||ui̯||huic|
Ae and au are by far the most common of the diphthongs. Ui really only shows up in a few words: cui, huic, etc. Most of the time ui represents two separate vowels or a consonantal U and an I. (More about consonantal U below.)
Remember that diphthongs are always long for the purposes of stress and meter.
How to pronounce Latin consonants
Most Latin consonants resemble their English counterparts. There may be very minor differences, but they are so slight that they only concern linguists. There are, however, a few consonants that differ greatly in pronunciation.
Asterisks indicate that the letter in question is further discussed below.
|B||as in English||b||bōs|
|C||always a hard C / K sound, like c in cat (even in front of e and i)||k||canō|
|D||as in English||d||edāx|
|F||as in English||f||frūctus|
|G||always a hard G sound, like g in goat (even in front of e and i) EXCEPT before n, when it is pronounced like the ng in sing||g, ŋ||gēns, agnus|
|H||as in English (but barely pronounced)||h||hortus|
|I||a Y sound like English y in yes*||j||iuvō|
|K||same as C (only used in a few archaic words)||k||Kalendae|
|L||as in English||l||famīlia|
|M||as in English; nasalized after a final vowel*||m||mīles, urbem|
|N||generally as in English, but before c, g, and qu it is like the ng in sing||n, ŋ||novus, inquam|
|P||as in English||p||pecūnia|
|Q||as in English; always followed by u||kʷ||quīnque|
|R||trilled R as in Spanish rr in perro||r||rosa|
|S||as in English s in kiss; NEVER English z||s||spēs|
|T||as in English t in tiger; NEVER sh like in nation||t||tamen|
|U / V||pronounced like English w in wet*||w||moveō|
|X||as in English||ks||ex|
|Z||appears only in Greek loanwords as a rendering of zeta (ζ); pronounced like English z or dz||z / dz||Mezentius|
Note that double consonants in Latin are always fully pronounced. So Latin annus sounds totally different from Latin anus. Pronounce it as an-nus, with a slight pause between the Ns.
Something similar happens in some English compounds. Think about book-keeper; you pronounce the K twice. This is what happens every time there is a double consonant in Latin.
The chart above gives you the basic pronunciation of the Latin consonants, but now we need to discuss a few of them in more detail. We will also discuss Greek consonant sounds borrowed into Latin.
M and Nasalized Vowels
First, let’s talk about M. M is pronounced the same way in Latin as it is in English, except when it comes at the end of a word after a vowel. In such instances, the M disappears and the vowel is nasalized.
So, urbem becomes urbẽ, with a nasal E like you find in French main and bain. And patriam becomes patriɑ̃ with a nasal A.
To be honest, most classicists that I know – myself included – do not pronounce the nasal vowels. But for the sake of completeness, I have included this information here.
Consonantal I and U
The Romans used one letter, I, to represent both the vowel I and the consonant J (pronounced like English Y). This makes sense, because I and Y are related phonetically.
In ancient Rome, then, an I could be either a vowel or a consonant. J did not start being used to indicate consonantal I until centuries later. For this reason, most Latin texts do not use J.
Similarly, the Romans did not distinguish between the vowel U and the consonant V (pronounced like English W). U and W are also related phonetically.
We find both U and V in ancient Rome. V shows up in inscriptions, while U shows up in handwriting. There is no distinction between the two; both can indicate either a vowel or a consonant. According to W. Sidney Allen, it was only in the 15th century C.E. that U began to represent solely the vowel and V solely the consonant.
Many Latin texts today do employ both U and V, and this is what I do on this website. But you will also find texts that only use U or (more rarely) only use V.
So, how do you know if the I or U you are looking at is a vowel or a consonant? Great question. If the I or U is at the beginning of a word and is followed by a vowel, you can assume it is a consonant.
Examples: iam, uēritās
If the I or U falls between two vowels, you can assume it is a consonant.
Examples: saeuitia, maior
If the I or U is at the end of a word, you can assume it is a vowel.
Examples: collī, metū
How to Pronounce Greek Consonants in Latin
Latin features three aspirated stops borrowed from Greek. They are written as a consonant plus H: ch, ph, and th.
Aspiration refers to the puff of breath (an H-like sound) that emerges from your mouth when you pronounce certain sounds. So ch makes the sound of C, but with a puff of breath.
- ch represents Greek chi (χ), or a hard C sound with a release of air. It is not pronounced like English ch in church.
- ph represents Greek phi (φ), or a P with a release of air. It is not pronounced like F.
- th represents Greek theta (θ), or a T with a release of air. It is not pronounced like English th in thin.
Most of the time the presence of ch, ph, or th is a sign of a Greek loanword. But once Romans had started using the H to indicate aspiration, they occasionally inserted it into native Latin words if they heard a strong puff of breath (e.g. pulcher).
How do we know what Latin sounded like?
My students often ask me how we know any of this. Are scholars just making things up? The answer is a resounding no.
We have arrived at our reconstructed knowledge of Classical Latin via careful linguistic analysis and comparison of all kinds of evidence. Here are just a few examples of types of evidence that help us:
Accounts of ancient grammarians: believe it or not, the ancient Romans thought about pronunciation and linguistics, too. Some authors explicitly discuss the proper way to pronounce specific sounds. For instance, we know that Romans trilled their Rs because authors described the sound as growling!
Misspellings in inscriptions and papyri fragments: incorrect spellings of a word can tell us a lot about how it was pronounced. For instance, we know that H probably disappeared from most Romans’ speech because less educated people stopped including it in inscriptions.
Evidence from Greek: we can look at how Greeks wrote Latin names in the Greek alphabet. Similarly, we can see how Romans wrote Greek words in the Latin alphabet. Comparing the sounds of the two languages can be very fruitful.
Evidence from linguistic development: historical linguists examine how Latin developed into the modern Romance languages. Since languages develop along specific patterns and often have predictable sound changes, scholars can use modern Romance sounds to reconstruct what Latin sounds must have been.
Thanks to evidence such as this, we can actually pinpoint Latin pronunciation with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, we understand Latin pronunciation with an even higher degree than I have explained here.
I haven’t gone into more detail, because this post is aimed at the average Latin learner. I don’t expect you to have knowledge of linguistic terminology.
If I told you that qu was likely pronounced as a labiovelar stop (kʷ) and not as a sequence of sounds (kw), would that mean anything to you? Likely not. And since the distinction isn’t phonemic in Latin, and you can hardly hear the difference, it is not a priority in explaining Latin pronunciation.
But if you are interested in linguistics, or if you are just a diehard Latin fan, then I recommend that you read W. Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin. This book walks you through each sound and explains exactly how it is pronounced and how we know.
Allen presents a wealth of evidence in a fairly accessible way (there is jargon, but it is at a minimum). There is also a fun appendix on the names of the letters in Latin.
You can purchase Vox Latina on The Book Depository, Bookshop, or Amazon.
I have explained how to pronounce Latin sounds and how we know what Latin sounded like. But there are a few things we haven’t covered. First and foremost is the issue of stress. Where do you place the emphasis in a Latin word?
Click here to read my post all about Latin accentuation. I explain how to divide Latin words into syllables and then how you know which syllable to stress. And there are even exercises so you can test yourself.
Examples of Latin Pronunciation
It’s all well and good to see what Latin sounds like written down. But it is easier if you have some concrete audio examples.
So that’s why I am including some resources below. They are available for free and have accompanying transcripts. This means you can test your knowledge of pronunciation.
Wheelock’s Latin Audio: Wheelock’s Latin is a well-known Latin textbook. But even if you don’t have the book itself, you can make use of the free online resources. There is an excellent introduction to Latin sounds with accompanying audio available on this official site. The chapter vocabulary is there, as well. (I sometimes think the speaker overdoes the length of the long vowels, but the pronunciation is great on the whole!)
Shelmerdine Latin Audio: Shelmerdine’s Introduction to Latin (2nd edition) is one of my favorite Latin textbooks. As with Wheelock’s, there are free resources available online. On the publisher’s website you will find PDFs of each chapter’s vocabulary, along with a recording. (Note: the speaker doesn’t roll her Rs well, but other than that the pronunciation is pretty good.)
Latinitium.com: This website has a lot of materials on it, many of which are paid. I haven’t looked at the site enough to be able to wholeheartedly endorse them, but they have some free audio. This post features short texts with accompanying audio. The downside is that the texts do not have macrons.
I hope that you have found this post helpful and that you now feel more confident in pronouncing Latin. Don’t forget to take a look at these related posts:
Why Latin Macrons Are Important
Best Latin Dictionaries for Students
As a lifelong Latin student and occasional user, I’ve never been totally sure of how classical Latin really sounded. This is a helpful synopsis.
Hi John, I am so glad the post was helpful. Good luck with your Latin studies!
Excellent. Optime! (A small typo: I think it should be “roll” instead of “role”)
Hi Aron, thanks for pointing this out! I have corrected the typo 🙂
I would like a clarification please regarding how you and most classicists say M at the end of a word. When you say in your blog, “do not pronounce the nasal vowels”, do you mean “do not pronounce the vowels nasalized”? I presume that you say the vowel un-nasalized with no following M. Is that correct? If so, is the vowel short or long? In English a word or syllable never ends with a short vowel.
I was also reminded of French vowels, which I think are nasalized before M or N and the M or N is not sounded, but if the M or N is followed by a vowel in the next syllable or word, the vowel and consonant are pronounced normally. Any parallels?
Hi Peter, yes, I do mean that we don’t usually pronounce the vowels nasalized! Instead, we pronounce the vowel (short) AND the M. Vowels automatically shorten before M at the end of a word.
I’m not an expert on French, but I believe you are right about the rules of nasalization. In Latin the combination of vowel + M is only nasalized at the END of a word. So, for example, in the words *memoria* and *semper* the Ms are pronounced normally, without nasalization. I suspect that French inherited some of its nasalization process from Latin.
With regard to Latin words ending with short vowels: it is possible – and common- for the vowels A and E to be short at the end of a word. I, O, and U will always be long at the end of a word, and Y can’t appear in word-final position.
I hope this helps! 🙂