Classical Latin Alphabet
While some letters were missing new letters were introduced or existing letters were repositioned. So what does this shifting landscape as it were tells us about Classical Latin?
Many interesting features of Classical Latin from a genealogical perspective are found as you will see. GN in Classical Latin produces the nasalized “ng” (ngay) sound as in the English word “hangnail”. Magnus is the Latin example of this principle. One could say this is a double-consonant in the making.
The letter H was drafted into Latin from another language. The H with the sound of (hā) was a breathing sound as in English, only less harshly pronounced as in these Latin examples: hic (hik), haec (hike).
Interestingly enough, the letter ‘I’ served as both a vowel and consonant. Consonantal ‘I’ makes the sound (e) appears regularly in English derivatives as a ‘J’ a letter added to the alphabet in the Middle Ages as for example: maior = major, Iūlius = Julius. Note however, when the ‘I’ comes between two vowels within a word it serves in double capacity: as the vowel ‘I’ forming a diphthong with the preceding vowel, and as the consonant like English Y as seen for example in: reiectus ( rei yectus) maior ( mai yor), cuius ( cui yus.) Otherwise it is usually a vowel.
The letters J did not exist. It appeared in the 16th Century AC. It was made by a French guy called Pierre de la Rameé. J was introduced to replace consonant ‘I’ as in this Latin word IESVS. Consonantal ‘I’ regularly appears in English derivatives as a J, a letter added to the alphabet in the Middle Ages as shown in the following examples: maior = major, Iūlius = Julius.
The letter K is very rarely used in Classical Latin, notice that in Charts 9a, 9b the C (cē), K (cā) and Q (cū) carry the K-sound in Latin.
In Latin the M usually had the sound it has in English, pronounced with the lips closed as in this example /monet/. There is some evidence, however, that in at least certain instances final /M/, that is, M at the end of a word, following a vowel, was pronounced with the lips open, producing a nasalization of the preceding vowel as in these two examples: tum, etiam.
The letter Q is pronounced as in English but is always followed by consonantal U as in QU, the combination having the sound KW (koo) as sound in these two examples: quid, quoque. QU is not a double-consonant in Classical Latin; it is treated as a single consonant.
In Latin the R is always rolled. However, as an English speaker I find great difficulty in creating the rolling sound for the R but I haven’t given up trying.
In Classical Latin the S sound was always voiceless as in the English word, see, never voiced as in the English word ease. These three Latin examples illustrate this rule: sed, posuissēs, mīssistis.
In Classical Latin, the letter T always had the sound of the English letter T as in tired, never ‘SH’ as in nation or ‘CH’ as in mention. These three Latin words are examples of this rule: taciturnitās, nātiōnem, mentiōnem.
Pierre de la Rameé is credited for introducing as well the letter ‘U’ into Classical Latin. ‘U’ is a variant of ‘V’, and ‘W’ was introduced as a ‘double -V’ to make a distinction between the sounds of ‘V’ and ‘W’ in the English language, though unnecessary in Latin. In Latin, the ‘U’ sound was written with the letter ‘V’for example, IVLIVS (Julius).
Puzzling as it may be, the ‘W’ was never integrated in the classical Latin alphabet. The letter ‘W’ was originally a ‘double V’ (VV) and it was first used by those scribes writing in Old English during the 7th century AD, however, the Runic letter Wynn (Ƿ) was more commonly used to write the (W) sound. After the Norman Conquest, the letter W became more popular and had replaced Wynn by 1300.
In Classical Latin the X has two letters (ks) so the X is recognized as a double-consonant.
The letters Y (ÿ) and Z were borrowed from the Greek Alphabet, and used only in Greek words. The letter ÿ comes from the Greek upsilon and the Romans called it "ÿ Graeca." The letter Z comes from the Greek Zeta and the Romans called it "Zeta," with a long zz sound. Z has two letters (ds) so it is a double-consonant.
A double-consonant is formed when two consonants coming together in a word to create a different sound. In Classical Latin, the ‘rr’ in the “currant” was pronounced as two separate r’s like the two r’s in this English sentence (The cur ran.); likewise the ‘tt’ (taytay) in the Latin word “admittent” sounded like the two t’s in the English sentence (Admit ten.) The Romans pronounced double-consonants as two separate consonants.
In Classical Latin these pair of letters: CH /kha/, PH /payha/, and TH /tha/ do not count as double consonants. They are treated as single letters as follows:
CH = CHI pronounced as /ke/ as in Archilochus
PHI pronounced as /p/ as in philosophia
THETA pronounced as /tayta) as in theatrum
The Romans quite appropriately pronounced double consonants as two separate consonants.
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