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Uncleaned Ancient Coins 101
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Who was Trajan Decius
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):
as in English “idea,” “aha”
Diphthongs (These vowels do not always form diphthongs):
as in English “high,” “ice”
Consonants are Pronounced as in English with the Following Exceptions:
as “p” before “s” or “t,” otherwise as in English
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.”
Latin vowel sounds are indicated as follows in the glossary:
short a: a
short u: u
UN-ki-a (all short Latin vowels)
SEX-tahns (the “a” is long in Latin)
QUAD-rahns (the second “a” is long in Latin)
TRI-ayns (the “e” is long in Latin)
SAY-mis (the “e” is long in Latin)
AS (the “a” is short in Latin). Americans often pronounce this "az."
du-PON-di-us (all short vowels)
says-TER-ti-us (the first “e” is long).
queen-AHR-i-us (the first “i” and the “a” are long).
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.
OW-re-us (short vowels)
SOL-i-dus (short vowels)
NUM-mus (short vowels)
Praenomina(almost always abbreviated):
OW-lus (short vowels)
The Twelve Caesars
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
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.
ka-li-gu-la (all short vowels). Americans make the short Latin “u” into a long American “u.”
GAL-ba (short vowels)
OTH-oh (the second “o” is long). Remember to pronounce the “th” the Latin way; Americans don’t.
wi-TELL-i-us (all short vowels). Americans pronounce the “V” the English way and follow it with a long English “i”
wes-pas-i-AHN-us (the second “a” is long). It’s spelled “Vespasian” in English and pronounced ves-PAYSH-i-an.
TI-tus (both short vowels). Americans make the “i” long: “TIE-tus.”
do-mi-ti-AHN-us (the “a” is long). Americans spell it “Domitian” and say “do-MISH-i-an.”
Other Commonly Mispronounced Emperors
an-to-NEE-nus PI-us (the “i” in “Antoninus” is long). Americans pronounce both with long English “i’s.”
KOM-mod-us (all short)
sep-TI-mi-us se-WAY-rus (the “e” in “Severus” is long). Americans naturally pronounce the “v” as in English.
Some Imperial Titles
tri-boo-NI-ki-a po-TES-tahs (the “u” in “tribunicia” and the “a” in “potestas” are long)
im-per-AH-tor (the “a” is long)
KOHN-sul (the “o” is long)
PON-ti-fex MAX-i-mus (all short)
PAT-er PAT-ri-ae (all short; “ae” pronounced as in English “ice”)
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.
kar-THAH-goh (second “a” and “o” long; remember how to pronounce “th”)
lon-DEE-ni-um (first “i” long)
lug-DOO-num (first “u” long)
med-i-o-LAH-num (long “a”)
OS-ti-a (all short)
ROH-ma (long “o”)
Tee-KEE-num (both long “i’s”)
TRAY-we-ree (first “e” and “i” long). English speakers would say the “v” the English way.
AE-gis (short “i”; “ae” like “i” in “ice”). Pronounce it “EE-jis” in English.