What I Got Wrong — Revisiting Latin

In this post, I want to try something different. About five years ago, I posted a reflection post about my learning experiences in Latin, on Facebook, read only by my friends. As The Language Closet developed and became the main repository of my personal reflections, I want to revisit this post, and to dissect what I got wrong about the language, now five years on.

The Original Post

Well, well. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian etc. These languages all sound familiar to most, but what gave rise to these languages which are so well known today? Through linguistic history, these Romance languages are found to evolve from a branch of Latin called vulgar (vulgus – mob) Latin.

Latin pronunciation is rather straight forward, since it follows the Latin alphabet which we are so familiar with. Also, the pronunciation is regular enough such that hardly any confusion can arise.

The interesting part comes to the vocabulary. Take “audio” and “video” for example. While they are English words, these words stemmed from Latin, meaning “I hear” and “I see”. I kinda compared the vocabulary in the Romance languages and English with Latin and found a sizable portion of borrowed or derived words from Latin in the Romance languages and English. The vocabulary of Latin, I’d say, it is “quite easy” to pick up because of this fact.

The grammar is the killer part. With 6 noun cases, 3 genders and 5 declensions, the nouns alone can be quite hard to pick up. The adjectives also decline, based on number, gender and case. The verbs may be quite manageable like how it is in the Romance languages, but it is the subjunctive mood that would be difficult to understand to learners (like how it is in French and Spanish). I note the SOV sentence structure of Latin, in contrast with the SVO sentence structure of the Romance languages, despite them being very closely related to Latin.

In short, Latin is the root of the tree of Romance languages we see, hear and speak today. It may be hardly spoken by anyone now, but it is a language worth learning if you’re interested in classical writings, or scientific writings of the 17th-18th century, when Latin was the lingua franca of the scientific world back then.

What I Got WrongLatin Sounds

While it is generally true that the modern Romance languages did originate and diverge from Vulgar Latin, working our way to figure out how Latin originally sounded like was a more complicated affair. For one, the Roman Empire as we know it lasted for more than 1000 years. It is long enough for the language to evolve, change and branch off into new variants, dialects or languages. The language norms, sounds and writing could also have changed during this period, yet only leaving us with the texts and inscriptions to work with, from Old Latin to Vulgar Latin. The way linguists reconstruct Latin phonology extends far beyond reading the texts from antiquity, or examining the existing languages that have evolved from this. All of these would have been made simpler if recording devices were around during the time of the Romans, but sadly the first microphones were invented in the late 19-century, and so we would have to make do with the texts we have.

One of the key pieces of evidence we have is the meter system used in Latin poetry. The meter, the basic rhythmic structure of verses, are often employed in these poems, which have inherited the verse structures from Greek in Roman times. These meters can often dictate vowel length, stress, and rhythms when one is verbalising the Latin verses. Notations were used to distinguish certain elements in Latin prosody, which gives us a bit of insight in the possible pronunciations of classical Latin. In prosody, the study of Latin poetry and laws of the meter, these notations are very often used:

  • — for long syllable or long element
  • u for short syllable or short element
  • ῡ for brevis in longo
  • | for end of foot
  • ‖ main caesura

The caesura is defined as the break between words within a metrical foot, where the foot is the basic repeating rhythmic unit that forms part of the line or verse in the poem. Putting all these together, we find that the meter in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem, is shown as such:

 -  u  u| -   u  u| -||  -| -    -|  - u  u |- - 
 Ărmă vĭ-rŭmquĕ că-nō, Trō-iae quī prīmŭs ăb ōrīs
- u u|- -| - || u u| - -| - u u| - - 
Ītălĭ-ǎm fā-tō prŏfŭ-gŭs Lā-vīniăquĕ vēnĭt

Elisions, where the vowel at the end of the word does not count as a syllable if the following word begins with a vowel or an ‘h’, are occasionally found in Latin poetry as well. This results in reading “Phyllida amo ante alias” reads “Phyllid’ am’ ant’ alias“. Curiously, a word ending in vowel and ‘m’ is also elided, making “nec durum in pectore ferrum” read as “nec dur’ in pectore ferrum“. This is just one of the pieces that linguists used to put together how Latin might have sounded like.

Languages evolve over time, and there is generally no exception to this. We have several hundred years of written Latin records, and we can see how the spelling of some words changed over time. This could work if Latin orthography works to reflect and represent the sounds of Latin during that time period, as compared to our convoluted English orthography where many exceptions to spelling rules are found, and often mocked at. Comparing inscriptions between different eras of Latin can tell us how sounds could have changed during the course of the Roman Empire, as words like “hic” suddenly gets spelled as “ic”, which might indicate that at some point in time, the pronunciation of the letter ‘h’ got phased out. Vowel lengths, consonant voicing (Labsus, non lapsus, for example) and other phonetic rules can be picked out. One of the main references that compiles these possible changes is the Appendix Probi, a palimpsest written in the fading days of the Roman Empire. This manuscript contains the common mistakes in written Latin during that time period, the 3rd to 4th century CE, when Vulgar Latin was more commonly in speech. In those mistakes, tendencies in the grammar, spelling, and pronunciation of the contemporary vernacular can be observed that would become the various Romance languages. Nasalisation was probably indicated by corrections like “numquam, non numqua” (nasal ‘a’), or “passim, non passi” (nasal ‘i’). In Vulgar Latin, the use of the latter spelling could indicate that the nasalisation as marked by vowel+m was lost during that period. Some remnants survive to this day, as Spanish “nunca” being derived from Classical Latin “numquam”. This manuscript certainly provided linguists a lot of insight into not only what Latin could have sounded like during the Classical period, but also how the language changed over the centuries.

There are many other sources of evidence used by linguists to piece together the workings of Latin speech, like analysis of regional variants, but there are cases when some texts are not as helpful as others. Church Latin, for instance, did not preserve the pronunciation, instead following the phonetic rules of Italian. This way, Church Latin was given the image of Latin grammar, words and characteristics with the reading rules of modern Italian, which many linguists would argue, is simply inaccurate.

What I Got Wrong — Latin Grammar

I mentioned that Latin was commonly an SOV system, a subject-object-verb word order. Upon further reading over this time, I realised that Latin word order was way more liberal than this. The order of words gave emphasis, stress and possibly power in discourse, while not changing the general meaning of the sentence. The case markings would have already indicated if the noun was the subject, direct object or indirect object in the sentence, by changing the end of the word. While the SOV system was the majority word order found in Latin, other word orders were also found, including the SVO word order we have in so many Romance languages. This gives us sentences like these:

  • profugiunt statim ex urbe tribūnī plēbis. “The tribunes immediately fled the city.” (VOS word order)
  • eo proficīscitur cum legiōnibus. “He set off for that place with the legions.” (SVO word order)

Additionally, Latin had this system of hyperbation, the emphasis of adjectives by separating them from the qualifying noun by other words. This has been used in classical languages, some Slavic languages, and in some poetry in English, although the term is applied differently in the latter. In both prose and verse, hyperbation has often been used, in cases like:

  • cruentum altē tollēns Brūtus pugiōnem.”Brutus, raising high the bloodstained dagger (cruentum … pugiōnem)”.
  • agrōs dēseruit incultōs.”He abandoned the fields, leaving them uncultivated.”

In these cases, Latin was a more complex system than I previously thought. The shuffling of words within a sentence creates more explicit discourse on which objects are emphasised, possibly glorified, and which adjectives are given more power in a sentence.

Latin Today

While most usage of Latin is relegated to school mottos, hymns and scientific names, Latin is still pretty much relevant to this day. Understanding where many of our words came from, understanding texts of antiquity, where many scientific writings of the 16th to 18th centuries were in Latin, and the creation of possibly new words, or brand names in modern languages, these are all possible applications of Latin in the present. Latin relies on such inflection patterns and grammatical frameworks to give the image of a complex language, and could be used as a springboard to launch learners into more languages, given their experience with such an inflectional language. Latin today, while not spoken by almost anyone, is still pretty much relevant, and its descendants continue to live on as among the most learned foreign languages in the world.


After reading through my reflections, I realised how naive I was back then, to the history of classical languages like Latin. Oversimplifying the reconstruction process of Latin sounds, being mistaken by some grammatical structures, and being so enthralled by the vast number of etymologies derived from Lain roots, I believe that the me of the past gave a way less well written reflection than I thought at the time, and I am glad to have revisited this to appreciate more aspects of Latin. I hope you have enjoyed this post, and probably compared my writing styles between the 2015 me and the 2020 me, and I will see you in the next post.

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