The Grammarphobia Blog

How the Bard and Cicero spoke

Q: In one of your quizzes, you say, “The accent we now associate with educated British speech didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.” I am not doubting this, but I question how you know. I recall the same question learning Latin: how does anyone know the way Romans pronounced words?

A: We’ve written often on our blog about the way English was pronounced in the past, including a post last year about efforts to present Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan English.

In that item about what is known as Original Pronunciation, we explain how linguists have reconstructed the sounds of Elizabethan speech. Here’s an excerpt:

“First, contemporary authors wrote commentaries on the pronunciation of their day.

“Ben Jonson, for instance, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a book on grammar in which he discussed the proper sounding of r after a vowel, as in ‘far’ and ‘heart.’ He described it as ‘growly.’

“Second, we have the evidence of the spellings Shakespeare used. In those days, spelling was not yet standardized, and people spelled words as they sounded to them.

“Shakespeare originally spelled the word ‘film’ (meaning a membrane) as ‘philom’—so it would have had two syllables, ‘fillum.’ As we know, that’s the pronunciation of ‘film’ used by the Irish today.

“Third, there are the rhythms, puns, and rhymes Shakespeare used, many of which don’t quite work in modern English—either British or American.

“When we hear some of these passages recited in Original Pronunciation, we can appreciate many of the puns and rhymes that Shakespeare intended.”

How, you ask, do we know the way the ancient Romans spoke Latin?

In Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (1965), W. Sidney Allen offers details of how scholars have reconstructed the ancient pronunciation.

Michael A. Covington, a linguist at the University of Georgia, has a brief online summary of Allen’s explanation:

“The Latin alphabet was meant to be entirely phonetic. Unlike us, the ancient Romans did not inherit their spellings from any earlier language. What you see is what you get.

“Language teaching was big business in Roman times, and ancient Roman grammarians give us surprisingly detailed information about the sounds of the language.

Languages derived from Latin give us a lot of evidence. In fact, many of the letters of the alphabet are pronounced the same way in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. It stands to reason that the original Latin pronunciation has survived.

“Spelling errors made by the ancient Romans are very informative. If two letters are often mixed up, they must sound fairly similar. Likewise, if two letters are never mixed up, we know they sounded different.”

“Here’s an example. In classical times, the natives had no trouble keeping ae distinct from e; if they ever misspelled ae it came out ai. Later on, they started changing ae to e. That enables us to pinpoint when the sound of ae changed.

“Finally, transcriptions into other writing systems, such as Greek and Sanskrit, often pin down the ancient pronunciation of Latin very precisely.”

Although scholars may know quite a bit about how Caesar spoke Latin, the Latin spoken today doesn’t necessarily reflect their scholarship.

We’re simplifying things here, but there are lots of different Latins–church Latin, botanical Latin, schoolhouse Latin, and so on–with lots of different pronunciations.

For example, scholars say Julius Caesar pronounced his name YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr, but it’s pronounced YOO-lee-us CHAY-sahr in church Latin in Italy and JOO-lee-us SEE-zer in historical references in English.

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