If you are learning Latin, chances are you have wondered whether you should pay attention to macrons. Opinions vary, but I am firmly in the pro-macron camp. Read on to learn why you should memorize Latin macrons!
When I taught elementary Latin at Harvard, my students had to learn the macrons. I wasn’t super strict about it, but I did insist that they include macrons when writing out declensions and conjugations on their quizzes.
One of my goals on this site is to encourage smart language learning. And memorizing Latin macrons is the smart thing to do if you are serious about the language.
Are macrons necessary in Latin? No, of course not. In fact, advanced Latin texts rarely include them, and the ancient Romans did not use macrons. (More about the ancient Romans to come!) But macrons can be an incredibly helpful tool for learning Latin.
In this post, I will answer the following questions:
- What are macrons?
- Why should you memorize macrons?
- Did the Romans write with macrons?
(If you are wondering how to type macrons, that’s a different issue. Check out my post on how to type Latin macrons in Windows and macOS.)
Now let’s get right to it!
What are macrons in Latin?
A macron is a diacritical mark ( ¯ ) that consists of a horizontal line placed above a vowel. The word macron derives from Ancient Greek μακρός “long”, which is appropriate since in Latin macrons indicate length. (Note that this is not true of languages across the board – for instance, in Chinese pinyin, macrons mark the first tone).
Macrons in Latin can indicate a) syllable length and b) vowel length. These are not always the same thing, and this post focuses on vowel length. Unless you are reading about Latin meter and looking at scanned lines of poetry, macrons in modern textbooks and dictionaries usually indicate vowel length. These are the macrons that are worth memorizing.
Here are the Latin vowels with macrons: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ. You will find macrons marked in most elementary textbooks and in many dictionaries. They do not, however, appear in Latin editions of ancient texts (for instance, in the Oxford Classical Texts or the Loeb Classical Library).
Why not? Because macrons’ greatest value is for beginning students. By the time you reach an advanced level, you will already be comfortable with Latin vowel length and you won’t need the support of macrons anymore.
And now let’s move on to the heart of this post: Why should you memorize Latin macrons?
Why You Should Memorize Latin Macrons
Reason #1: Macrons tell you how to pronounce Latin properly.
Each Latin vowel has a short and a long form, but both pronunciations are written with the same letter. In other words, a can stand for the long “a” in father and the short “uh” sound in money. In order to make things easier for students, scholars started using the macron to signal when the vowel should be pronounced long.
Ancient Romans didn’t need macrons. They instinctively knew how to pronounce words, just like native English speakers can instinctively distinguish between the As in cat, hate, and father. But we, as learners of Latin, need the extra help.
If you memorize the macrons, you know how to pronounce each Latin vowel in each word properly. If you don’t, then each word is a mystery.
Furthermore, stress in Latin depends on the length of the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable of each word. Vowel length influences syllable length, so for most words, you need to know the placement of macrons in order to determine which syllable to stress.
To summarize: if you don’t memorize the macrons, you will have no idea how to pronounce anything in Latin.
Would you tell someone learning English to ignore English pronunciation? Of course not. And Latin shouldn’t be any different, even if it is a “dead” language.
Reason #2: Macrons can change the meaning and grammatical function of words.
Vowel length is phonemic in Latin. This means that words can be distinguished from each other based solely on vowel length. For instance, liber (short I) means “book”, while līber (long I) means “free”. Anus (short A) means “old woman”, while ānus (long A) means “ring”.
Vowel length can also identify the case of some nouns or the tense of some verbs. For example, first declension nouns have –a (short A) as their ending in the nominative singular, but –ā (long A) as their ending in the ablative singular. This is an important distinction that can greatly affect your translation of the sentence or phrase! As for the verbs, uenit (short E) means “s/he comes”, while uēnit (long E) means “s/he came”. Again, this is a significant difference.
Now, you may object. You might say, it’s all very well if you use a textbook that includes macrons. But in the real world of Latin texts and inscriptions, where macrons don’t appear, why does it help to know how to distinguish things based on vowel length?
Sometimes it won’t help you – i.e. if you are reading prose. But if you are reading poetry and know something about meter, then your knowledge of vowel length will prove extremely useful. Numerous times I have decided the meaning of a line by scanning it (determining which syllables are short and long) and then figuring out the case or tense of a word based on its place in the meter.
If you know that a syllable has to be long because of its position in the meter, you can often conclude that the vowel has to be long, too. This, in turn, can allow you to distinguish – say -nominatives and ablatives. So if you are serious about Latin and are planning on reading poetry, then macrons are a must.
Reason #3: Macrons are important for historical linguistics and etymology.
This may not be a reason that has any relevance for your life, and if so, skip this section. But if you wish to study historical linguistics, knowing which vowels are long and which vowels are short will prove important for understanding sound changes and other linguistic developments.
This is true for understanding how Latin developed from Proto-Indo-European and also for understanding how the modern Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, etc.) developed out of Latin.
Did the Romans write with macrons?
No, the ancient Romans did not use macrons. It is surprisingly difficult to determine when macrons were added to Latin for pronunciation purposes, but I believe that this usage dates to the 19th century. Previously macrons were employed in meter to indicate long syllables (as they still are today). They also appeared as abbreviations in some manuscripts.
But just because the Romans didn’t use macrons does not mean that they did not mark long vowels. In fact, in the 2nd century BCE inscriptions begin to signal vowel length in three ways.
The first method is simply to write long vowels twice: geminātiō uōcālium or doubling of vowels. The first known instance is on an inscription from Delos dating to 135/4 BCE (CIL I2 2238). In this inscription we find aaram “altar” with two As to signal the vowel length.
Vowel doubling was, however, by no means a consistent phenomenon. Scholars still debate what the criteria were for indicating vowel length. For instance, we see doubled vowels most frequently in the first syllables of words and doubled As vastly outnumber other doubled vowels. Geminatio uocalium was never standardized, but we do still see it cropping up down to 300 CE.
The second major method of indicating length is to place an acute accent ( ´ ) over the long vowel. This accent was called the apex and the first recorded use comes in 104 BCE (CIL I2 679). We see it on inscriptions, although it is often so delicately inscribed that it is easy to miss. In the following photo, note especially the apices over the O and the A in the third line.
Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician active in the 1st century CE, discusses the appropriate placement of apices and argues that they should be used only where essential.
It would be very silly to put an apex over all long syllables, because the length of most of them is obvious from the nature of the word which is written, but it is sometimes necessary, namely when the same letter produces different senses if it is long and if it is short. Thus, in malus, an apex indicates that it means “apple tree” and not “bad man”. . . and when the same letter is found as short in the nominative and as long in the ablative, we commonly need to be reminded which interpretation to choose.Quintilian Institutio Oratoria 1.7.2-3 (trans. Russell)
In short, Quintilian makes some of the same points about the apex that I have been making about the macron. So ancient Romans also recognized the importance of vowel length! I am standing on the shoulders of giants here.
Note, however, that just like the doubling of vowels, the apex was not standardized in use.
The final method of indicating vowel length applies only to the letter I. An alternate form existed, i longa (“tall I”), which was significantly taller than a standard I. If you scroll back up to the photo, you can find an example of i longa on the third line (in ornamentis).
I longa signified the long I (like the vowel sound in green). The normal, shorter I signified a short I (like the vowel sound in pig). The i longa is first attested at the end of the 2nd century BCE.
In conclusion, as you can see, the Romans themselves felt the need to indicate vowel length in certain circumstances. So while macrons are a modern invention, the principle behind them has a very ancient pedigree. We can look back to geminatio uocalium, the apex, and the i longa and know that vowel length is indeed an important part of Latin.
Go Memorize Your Latin Macrons
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what macrons are and why you should use them. If you include macrons in your memorization process from the very beginning, you will learn them naturally and without any trouble. I often thank my teenage self for having diligently memorized words along with their macrons.
You do have to memorize macrons for each individual word, but this isn’t as scary as it sounds. Really you are just learning the pronunciation of each word. After all, if you can say the word properly, you will know where to put the macrons (since they affect the pronunciation of vowels).
If you follow my tips for reviewing flashcards effectively, you will be saying your flashcards out loud anyway. This will help the pronunciation to stick in your mind.
Even if you don’t worry too much about most macrons, make sure that you at least memorize the macrons in declension and conjugation endings. As I explained above, often vowel length can determine cases or tenses. So macrons are your friend!
Finally, make sure you learn how to type Latin macrons. Don’t fall into the trap of copying and pasting letters with macrons from Google!
Those interested can read more about Latin orthography and pronunciation in the following sources.
- Wallace, Rex. 2011. “The Latin Alphabet and Orthography.” In A Companion to the Latin Language, ed. J. Clackson. Malden, MA. 9-28.
- Allen, W. Sidney. 1978. Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin. Cambridge.
- Vine, Brent. 1993. Studies in Archaic Latin Inscriptions. Innsbruck. (see especially Chapter 11, pp. 267-286 on geminatio uocalium)