Wondering where to place the accent in a Latin word? This post will tell you all about Latin stress and syllables.
Latin (like English and many other languages) has a stress accent. This means that one syllable in a word receives special emphasis. Examples are the syllable fa in English father and the syllable raffe in giraffe.
Fortunately, Latin has a predictable stress accent. You never have to guess where to put the emphasis. Just learn a few simple rules and you can pronounce any Latin word with confidence.
The only tricky thing is that one of these rules depends on syllable length. And that’s why this post will also take a deep dive into Latin syllables.
A basic understanding of Latin syllables is necessary for correct pronunciation. Syllable length will also be crucial when you reach an advanced level and start scanning Latin poetry.
We will first talk about stress rules, then about syllable length, and finally pull everything together with some exercises. Let’s get started!
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Latin Stress Rules
For the purposes of accentuation, we will divide Latin words into three groups.
- One-syllable words
- Two-syllable words
- Words with three or more syllables
Stress is extremely simple for the first two groups. If a word has one syllable (e.g. nunc, et, iam), then you obviously stress that syllable.
If a word has two syllables, then always stress the first one. Syllable length does not matter here.
In the following examples, the stressed syllable is in bold.
- puer = pu-er
- āla = ā-la
- dantur = dan-tur
So far so good. Now it gets more complicated. If a Latin word has three or more syllables, then you have to check the length of the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable.
PENULTIMATE STRESS RULE
If the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable is long, then stress it. If the penultimate syllable is short, then stress the antepenult (third-to-last syllable).
The stressed syllables are in bold.
- Rōmānus = Rō-mā-nus (mā is long)
- sacerdōs = sa-cer-dōs (cer is long)
- fēmina = fē-mi-na (mi is short)
- admoneō = ad-mo-ne-ō (ne is short)
It does not matter if the antepenult is long or short. The stress depends entirely on the penult.
And that is why syllable length is crucial for Latin pronunciation. But before we get into the details of long vs. short syllables, we need to cover the few exceptions to the penultimate stress rule.
Exceptions to Latin Stress Rules
There are a few exceptions to the penultimate rule above, but they are not very far-reaching. I will discuss the two most important exceptions here.
If you are a beginning student, you may want to skip this section and jump down to the syllables section.
Latin Stress in Enclitics
The first relates to enclitics, or particles that are attached to the end of a word. The most common enclitics are -que (and), -ne (question particle), and -ve (or).
When one of these particles is attached to the end of a word, you always stress the penultimate syllable, even if it is short.
Examples, with the stressed syllables marked in bold:
- carminaque = car-mi-na-que (na is short)
- puellane = pu-el-la-ne (la is short)
In other words, the accent always falls on the syllable immediately before the enclitic.
Stress in Compounds of Faciō
The other main exception relates to compounds of the verb faciō (“make, do”). In Latin you can add a prefix to a verb to slightly change its meaning. Faciō is no exception.
In the case of faciō, some compounds are special in that they are actually two separate words jammed together.
- bene + faciō = benefaciō, “do well”
- male + faciō = malefaciō, “do harm, injure”
- satis + faciō = satisfaciō, “satisfy”
- calēns + faciō = calefaciō, “make warm”
For these verbs, the stress in the compound form always matches the stress of the simple verb. This is true even when this leads to a short penultimate syllable being stressed.
For instance, faciō means “I do”, and malefaciō means “I do harm”. In both of these words, the stress falls on fa, since the penultimate syllable (i) is short.
Now look what happens when you conjugate the verb. Facit means “s/he does”, while malefacit means “s/he does harm”.
Facit is a two-syllable word, so fa is emphasized. But malefacit poses a problem. Fa is a short syllable, so according to the penultimate stress rule, we ought to emphasize the e in malefacit.
But this is not what happens. The stress stays on the fa: malefacit. For the purposes of accentuation, we pretend that the male (or bene, satis, or cale) does not exist.
NOTE: If you want to dive even deeper into exceptions to the stress role, you can consult paragraph 12 of Allen and Greenough’s, my favorite Latin grammar.
Now we have covered the stress rules and seen how syllable length influences Latin pronunciation. It is time to study syllables in detail.
A Guide to Latin Syllables
A Latin word has as many syllables as it has vowels or diphthongs. When you are dividing a word into syllables, as a general rule the consonant goes with the following syllable (if there is one).
- pater > pa-ter
- rēgīnārum > rē-gī-nā-rum
If there are two consonants in a row, then they are split between syllables.
- oppida > op-pi-da
- intelligentia > in-tel-li-gen-ti-a
The consonants in ph, th, and ch are never separated, since they represent single sounds. (Ph is an aspirated p sound, th an aspirated t sound, and ch an aspirated c sound.) Similarly, qu is never split in two.
- philosophia > phi-lo-so-phi-a
- Achaeus > A-chae-us
- coquus > co-quus
- patris > pa-tris
- reclāmō > re-clā-mō
Why? Well, these kinds of combinations roll off the tongue easily. One way to tell this is that Latin words can begin with pr but they cannot, say, begin with pt.
Finally, two letters – X and Z – count as double consonants because both involve two sounds. X = C + S, while Z = D + Z.
When you divide words into syllables, attach the x and z to the previous syllable.
- exemplum > ex-em-plum
- Mezentius > Mez-en-ti-us
The truest reflection of what is going on would be ec-sem-plum and Med-zen-ti-us, but that looks weird. So we will stick to attaching the consonant to the previous syllable.
What do you do if you have three consonants in a row? The first consonant goes with the first syllable, while the second two consonants go with the second syllable.
- astrum > as-trum
- exempla > ex-em-pla
This happens unless the three-consonant cluster results from the addition of the particles –que, –ne, or –ve. In that case, the syllable split happens between the original word and the particle.
And now for a bit of terminology. An open syllable is a syllable that ends in a vowel. A closed syllable is a syllable that ends in a consonant.
Divide the following words into syllables.
Syllable Length in Latin
Syllables in Latin can be long or short. Theoretically, a long syllable has twice the duration of a short syllable.
Syllables can be long in two ways:
- by nature
- by position
If a syllable is long neither by nature nor by position, then it is short.
Syllables Long By Nature
A syllable is long by nature if it contains either a long vowel or a diphthong. Long vowels in Latin are marked in dictionaries and textbooks with a macron: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ. (This is why you should memorize macrons!) The six Latin diphthongs are ae, au, ei, eu, oe, ui.
So if a syllable contains any of these long vowels or diphthongs, it is long by nature. This is because the natural length of the vowel/diphthong lasts longer.
Examples, with syllables long by nature in bold:
- puellae > pu-el-lae
- rēgīnārum > rē–gī–nā-rum
- nautīs > nau–tīs
Syllables Long By Position
A syllable is long by position if it contains a short vowel followed by a consonant. In other words, it is a closed syllable.
Another way of saying this is that if a vowel is followed by two consonants, even if the consonants are in separate syllables, the syllable is long by position.
Remember that h never counts as a double consonant, and a stop + liquid combination does not, either. X and Z, on the other hand, do count as double consonants.
In the following examples, syllables that are long by position are in bold.
- intelligentia > in–tel-li-gen-ti-a
- exemplum > ex–em–plum
- puella > pu-el-la
Now let’s discuss an issue that arises in poetry, where syllable length is of the utmost importance. What do you do about the last syllable in a word? If it ends in two consonants, it is obviously long. But what about if it ends in one?
Technically, the final syllable in a word like facit is long, because cit is a closed syllable. But this only works if we view the word in isolation.
What if we see facit in a poem, and the following word is et? What happens is that the t in facit is pronounced as part of the following word.
- facit et > fa-ci-tet
In other words, the cit syllable is not truly closed. It is pronounced as an open syllable, ci. So a single consonant cannot lengthen a word’s final syllable in poetry.
Now let’s imagine our poem says facit nunc.
- facit nunc > fa-cit nunc
Now we have a truly closed syllable – the short i is followed by two consonants. Cit is long, because the following word begins in a consonant.
NOTE: Poets will sometimes consider the syllable before a stop + liquid long by position. So, instead of analyzing patris as pa–tris, they analyze it as pat–ris. If you are a beginner, you can safely ignore this information, but it will be useful when you start reading Latin poetry.
Identify the long syllables in the following words.
- tis (by position), ō (by nature)
- prae (by nature)
- ex (by position), ī (by nature), bant (by position)
- pon (by position), fex (by position)
- ner (by position)
- rē (by nature), gēs (by nature)
Practice Identifying Latin Stress
Wow, that was a lot of information. How are you feeling? Ready to practice?
If you are a beginning student, then you should only care about syllable length because of the Latin stress accent. To review: in words with three or more syllables, if the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable is long, you stress it. If it is short, you stress the antepenult (third-to-last syllable).
I laid everything out in detail up above, and I do recommend that you try to understand the ins and outs of Latin syllables with time. But in the following few paragraphs, I will give a few quick tips for determining where to place the stress.
Whenever you see a Latin word with more than two syllables, focus on that second-to-last syllable. Ask yourself the following two questions.
- Does the syllable contain a long vowel or a diphthong? (If yes, then it is long by nature – so stress it!)
- Is the syllable followed by two consonants, neither of which is H, or by X or Z? (If yes, than the syllable is long by position – so stress it!)
If you cannot answer “yes” to either of these questions, then the syllable in question is short. So stress the antepenult, the third-to-last syllable.
Let us return to our original examples.
- Rōmānus = Rō-mā-nus
- sacerdōs = sa-cer-dōs
- fēmina = fē-mi-na
- admoneō = ad-mo-ne-ō
Now you understand how syllable length is determined, so you can tell that the mā in Rōmānus is long by nature. The cer in sacerdōs, on the other hand, is long by position.
Mi in fēmina and ne in admoneō contain short vowels that are not followed by two consonants. That’s why these two syllables are short and cannot take the stress.
Now you try!
Identify which syllable is stressed in the following words.
- A-pol-lō (pol is long by position)
- pon-ti-fi-cēs (fi is short)
- vo-cā-mus (cā is long by nature)
- tes-tū-dō (tū is long by nature)
- im-pe-dī-men-ta (men is long by position)
- a-gri-co-la (co is short)
- a-gri-co-lā-rum (lā is long by nature)
- blan-di-ti-a (ti is short)
- lau-dā-vis-se (vis is long by position)
- phi-lo-so-phus (so is short)
How did you do? Are you feeling a little more confident with regard to Latin stress and syllables?
It is a complex topic, but I promise that it gets easier with time. Bookmark this page to come back to, because, after all, practice makes perfect!
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