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A Latin Pronunciation Guide for Numismatists

Original Article by Scott T. Rottinghaus

Pronunciation of Latin presents a great problem for many numismatists. With fewer people having studied Latin in school over the past several decades, and many numismatists lacking the opportunity to hear these comparatively obscure terms spoken, some people become so afraid of pronouncing a word wrong that they avoid pronouncing it at all. Hopefully this pronunciation guide will help to solve the problem by providing some universal rules for Latin pronunciation as well as a glossary of some common words in Roman numismatics to serve as examples.

Unfortunately,there are several different ways to pronounce Latin. This is to be expected from a language that has been used in different cultures for different purposes for well over two millennia. The pronunciations discussed here are the reconstructed"classical" pronunciations. These are used by classicists today and are probably very close to the way Romans talked during the late Republic and early Empire. There is also "ecclesiastical Latin," which is pronounced much like Italian (this won't be addressed further here, as it normally is not used in a numismatic context). Finally we must not forget the common modern pronunciations that develop as Latin words are used today. These vary significantly from country to country, but they are unfortunately the ones you will hear most when you go to coin shows. Here I will give the rules and pronunciations for classical Latin, which can be used anywhere, particularly among academics. However,where the modern English pronunciation differs from the classical pronunciation,I have written a note in italics about how the word is normally pronounced by an English speaker.

The rules and sounds set out here apply to every Latin word. Unlike English, Latin is pronounced the way it looks, and there are no"silent" letters. The pronunciation of consonants is always predictable. Vowels, on the other hand, can be "long" or "short." Long and short Latin vowels are pronounced differently than long and short English vowels (see below). Unfortunately,it is usually not clear by looking at a word which vowels will be long and which will be short. Therefore, in the glossary I have stated which vowels are long and short for each word listed. Although it is not technically correct, most people just pronounce all vowels long. However, it is imperative to know which vowels are long and which are short in order to determine where the stress, or accent, belongs in a word. Although the Romans probably did not stress words quite as we do (their theory was that it took twice as long to pronounce a "heavy" syllable as it took to pronounce a "light" one-this probably providing most of the difference between "long" and "short" vowels), it is still convenient for us to use some rules to apply our modern stress to Latin.

Rules for stress are as follows:

1. A one-syllable word is stressed.
2. The stress is on the first syllable in a two-syllable word.
3. For words with more than two syllables, the stress is on the penultimate syllable (second from the end) if that syllable is"heavy."
a. A syllable is heavy if it contains a long vowel.
b. A syllable is heavy if it has a short vowel followed by two consonants or a double consonant (x or z).
c. A syllable is heavy if it contains a diphthong.
d. A syllable is light if it contains a short vowel followed by one consonant or no consonants.
4. The stress is on the ante-penultimate syllable (third from the end) otherwise.

Vowels (You are unlikely to be faulted if you pronounce everything long):

  

a (short)
a (long)
e (short)
e (long)
i (short)
i (long)
o (short)
o (long)
u (short)
u (long)
y

 

as in English “idea,” “aha”
as in English “father,” “par”
as in English “pet”
as in English “they,” “pay”
as in English “pit,” “dip”
as in English “peal,” “deep”
as in English “pot,” “orb,” “off”
as in English “clover” or French “beau”
as in English “put”
as in English “rude,” “pool”
as French “u” or German umlaut “u.” Most American numismatists and even classicists pronounce this “ee,” like a long Latin “i,” as it’s pronounced in ecclesiastical Latin.

 
 

Diphthongs (These vowels do not always form diphthongs):

  

ae
au
ei
eu
oe
ui

 

as in English “high,” “ice”
as in English “how”
as in English “day”
as combined Latin e+u, “ayoo”
as in English “boy”
as in English “squeak” 

 
 

Consonants are Pronounced as in English with the Following Exceptions:

  

b
c
ch
g
i (consonant)
ph
r
s
t
th
v (consonant)
x

 

as “p” before “s” or “t,” otherwise as in English
always hard, as “k”
 aspirated, as in “pack-horse”
always hard, as “g” in “got.”
as “y” in English, “yellow.”
 aspirated, as in “up hill
 as Scottish “rolled” r
 always as in “sing,” not as in “roses”
 always as in “tin,” with no “h” sound
 aspirated, as in “pot-house”
 as “w”
always as “ks” 

 
 

NB: Latin lacks the English letter “w.” It also lacks “j” and “v,” which we often use to represent the consonant forms of “i” and “u.” Inscriptions will use the characters “I” and “V.”

Glossary

Latin vowel sounds are indicated as follows in the glossary:

   

short a: a
long a: ah
short e: e
long e: ay
short i: i
long i: ee
short o: o
long o: oh

 

short u: u
long u: oo
ae: ae
au: ow
ei: ay
eu: eu
oe:  oe
ui: ui

 
 

Denominations

                                                  

Uncia

 

UN-ki-a (all short Latin vowels)

 

Sextans

 

SEX-tahns (the “a” is long in Latin)

 

Quadrans

 

QUAD-rahns (the second “a” is long in Latin)

 

Triens

 

TRI-ayns (the “e” is long in Latin)

 

Semis

 

SAY-mis (the “e” is long in Latin)

 

As

 

AS (the “a” is short in Latin). Americans often pronounce this "az."

 

Dupondius

 

du-PON-di-us (all short vowels)

 

Sestertius

 

says-TER-ti-us (the first “e” is long).
Americans usually say "ses-TER-she-us."

 

Quinarius

 

queen-AHR-i-us (the first “i” and the “a” are long).
Americans usually say “quin-AYR-i-us,” with a long English “a” in the second syllable
.

 

Denarius

 

dayn-AHR-i-us (the “e” and “a” are long). Americans usually say “den-AYR-i-us,”  with a long English “a” in the second syllable.

 

Aureus

 

OW-re-us (short vowels

 

Solidus

 

SOL-i-dus (short vowels)

 

Nummus

 

NUM-mus (short vowels)  

 
 

Metals

  

Aes
Argentum
Aurum 

 

as English “ice.” Some Americans say the English word “ace.”
ar-GEN-tum (short vowels, hard g)
OW-rum (short vowels

 
 

Praenomina(almost always abbreviated):

  

A=Aulus
A or Ap=Appius
C=Gaius
Cn=Gnaeus
D=Decimus
L=Lucius
M=Marcus
Man or Mn=Manius
N=Numerius
P or Pub=Publius
Q=Quintus
S or Ser=Servius
 
Sx or Sex=Sextus
S or Sp=Spurius
 
T=Titus
Ti or Tib=Tiberius

 

OW-lus (short vowels)
AP-pi-us (short vowels)
GUY-us (short vowels)
GNAE-us (“ae” as in English “ice.”)
DEK-i-mus (short vowels)
LOO-ki-us (long “u”) It’s “LOO-shee-us” in English.
MAR-kus (short vowels)
MAHN-i-us (long “a”)
nu-MER-i-us (short vowels)
PUB-li-us (short vowels)
QUIN-tus (short vowels)
SER-wi-us (short vowels) Pronounce the “v” the English way if you’re not feeling Roman.
SEX-tus (short vowels)
SPUR-i-us (short vowels)
TI-tus (short vowels). Americans pronounce this with a long English “i”: “TIE-tus.”
ti-BER-i-us (short vowels).  Americans make the first “i” and the “e” long here too:
“tie-BEER-ee-us.” 

 
 

The Twelve Caesars

                                              

Iulius Caesar

 

YOO-li-us KAE-sar  (the first “u” is long; the “ae” is like the “i” in the English “ice”). Of course Americans say JOO-lee-us SEE-zar

 

Augustus

 

ow-GUS-tus (all short vowels). Americans make it start with the same sound as the month “August.”

 

Tiberius

 

ti-BER-i-us (all short vowels). Americans use a long English “i” and a long “e” in the first two syllables: tie-BEER-ee-us.  

 

Caligula

 

ka-li-gu-la (all short vowels). Americans make the short Latin “u” into a long American “u.”

 

Claudius

 

KLOW-di-us (all short vowels).  Again, Americans make that “au” sound like the month “August.”

 

Nero

 

NAY-roh (both vowels long).  Americans pronounce it with long English vowels: NEE-roh. 

 

Galba

 

GAL-ba (short vowels)

 

Otho

 

OTH-oh (the second “o” is long).  Remember to pronounce the “th” the Latin way; Americans don’t.

 

Vitellius

 

wi-TELL-i-us (all short vowels). Americans pronounce the “V” the English way and follow it with a long English “i”

 

Vespasianus

 

wes-pas-i-AHN-us (the second “a” is long). It’s spelled “Vespasian” in English and pronounced ves-PAYSH-i-an.

 

Titus

 

TI-tus (both short vowels). Americans make the “i” long: “TIE-tus.”

 

Domitianus

 

do-mi-ti-AHN-us (the “a” is long). Americans spell it “Domitian” and say “do-MISH-i-an.”

 
 

Other Commonly Mispronounced Emperors

              

Antoninus Pius

 

an-to-NEE-nus PI-us (the “i” in “Antoninus” is long). Americans pronounce both with long English “i’s.”  

 

Lucius Verus

 

LOO-ki-us WAY-rus (the first “u” in “Lucius” and the “e” in “Verus” are long). Americans say “LOO-shi-us VE-rus.”

 

Commodus

 

KOM-mod-us (all short)

 

Septimius Severus

 

sep-TI-mi-us se-WAY-rus (the “e” in “Severus” is long). Americans naturally pronounce the “v” as in English.

 
 

Some Imperial Titles

                  

Tribunicia Potestas

 

tri-boo-NI-ki-a po-TES-tahs (the “u” in “tribunicia” and the “a” in “potestas” are long)

 

Imperator

 

im-per-AH-tor (the “a” is long)

 

Consul

 

KOHN-sul (the “o” is long)

 

Pontifex Maximus

 

PON-ti-fex MAX-i-mus (all short)

 

Pater Patriae

 

PAT-er PAT-ri-ae (all short; “ae” pronounced as in English “ice”)

 
 

Important Mints

                                      

Alexandria

 

al-eks-an-DREE-a (long “i”). In English, this is pronounced “al-ex-AN-dree-a,” with the accent on a different syllable than in Latin, which is somewhat unusual.

 

Carthago

 

kar-THAH-goh (second “a” and “o” long; remember how to pronounce “th”)

 

Cyzicus

 

KOO-zi-kus or KEE-zi-kus (the former preferred, where “oo” is pronounced as German umlaut “u”; all short vowels). Americans use the latter pronunciation, sometimes with a soft “c.”

 

Londinium

 

lon-DEE-ni-um (first “i” long)

 

Lugdunum

 

lug-DOO-num (first “u” long)

 

Mediolanum

 

med-i-o-LAH-num (long “a”)

 

Ostia

 

OS-ti-a (all short)

 

Roma

 

ROH-ma (long “o”)

 

Ticinum

 

Tee-KEE-num (both long “i’s”)

 

Treveri

 

TRAY-we-ree (first “e” and “i” long). English speakers would say the “v” the English way.

 
 

Miscellaneous

  

Aegis
Aquila
Biga
Caduceus
Cippus
Cornucopia
Lituus
Modius
Officina
Palladium
Patera
Pileus
Quadriga
Simpulum
Tessera
Vexillum

 

AE-gis (short “i”; “ae” like “i” in “ice”). Pronounce it “EE-jis” in English.
A-qui-la (all short)
BEE-ga (long “i”)
ka-DOO-ke-us (long “u”) The third syllable is “see” in English. 
KIP-pus (short vowels)
kor-nu-KOH-pi-a (long “o”)
LIT-u-us (short vowels)
MO-di-us (short vowels)
of-fi-KEE-na (second “i” long)
pal-LA-di-um (all short) Americans pronounce this like the metal.
PA-te-ra (all short)
PEE-le-us (first “i” long)
quad-REE-ga (long “i”)
SIM-pu-lum (short vowels)
TES-se-ra (short vowels)
vex-IL-lum (short vowels)