Hack Your Latin, #7: Avoiding Common Pronunciation Pitfalls

John Byron Kuhner
Jul 27 · 6 min read
Don’t put another dagger in Caesar’s heart, unless you really mean to. (Jean-Leon Gerome’s “The Death of Caesar,” at the Walters Art Museum; source)

There’s really no denying the importance of good pronunciation when it comes to learning a language. Accurate pronunciation is essential for appreciating a language’s beauty and structure, and helps the learner’s mind internalize its natural rhythms. But after years of teaching in various summer Latin programs with students from all over the English-speaking world, I can say with confidence: Latin students routinely mispronounce a whole host of basic words. The Latin words for “time,” “tree,” “to have,” “teacher,” “that,” and even some of the most famous names in Roman history, give students trouble every year. I suspect, given the consistency of the mistakes, that a lot of their teachers and professors don’t know how to pronounce these words either. So rather than having to correct students on the same words for another few decades, I thought I’d try to compile a list of the most commonly mispronounced — and by that I mean mis-accented — Latin words. Maybe if this is shared around enough, and if we all correct each other’s accents from time to time, we can solve this problem.

The Rules

First of all, the rules. Placing Latin accents is simple and consistent. If the word has two syllables, the accent is placed on the first syllable: FOrum, not Fo-RUM. This rarely causes problems. The problems arise once the third syllable is introduced. For words of three syllables or more, the rule is:

the accent on the word always falls on the antepenult (the third-from-last syllable) UNLESS the penult (next-to-last syllable) is long.

Hence: for a word like Cicero, the accent falls (as by rule it does) on the antepenult, the third-from-last syllable: CI-cero. If the penult — the “ce” here — were long, then it would be Ci-CE-ro (which no one says). Knowing when a syllable is long is a bit more complicated — but any account of how Roman poetry works will give you a decent explanation. Dictionary entries generally show long and short syllables as well. And what’s more — hearing the language pronounced correctly will teach you. You know it’s CI-cero, from having heard it multiple times. And that means the “e” in Cicero must be short.

And here are a whole bunch of Latin words that are mis-accented all the time. Learning how to pronounce these words will give you a great head start on mastering Latin pronunciation. [list updated; see below — JBK]

11. LIBERTAS. If you think it’s pronounced LI-bertas, you’re probably an English speaker who isn’t looking closely at the Latin. Double-consonants like -rt- make the preceding vowel long by position, and long vowels in the penultimate position in a word get the stress. It’s li-BER-tas. This isn’t the commonest word in Latin, but English speakers routinely mispronounce it when they see it.

10. ARBORE. What do arboris, arbori, arborem, and arbore all have in common? A short o, which in the penultimate position can’t get stress. The word is pronounced AR-bo-re. This is easier to see if you know some Romance languages, where ALbero and ARboles preserve the Latin accent on the antepenult.

9. LABORO. You might think that a student who makes the -o- in arbore long might do the same thing with laboro, where it is actually long: the word is pronounced la-BO-ro. But amazingly, they manage to get the pronunciations wrong on both words. It should be, “Sextus laBOrat sub ARbore.” And while we’re at it, la-BO-ro can mean to “work,” but in that case it means “to break your back while working,” i.e. to suffer while working. If you’re saying you have a job, you want to say munere fungor (pronounced MUnere), and if you are saying a machine is no longer working, you want to say non operatur (opeRAtur).

8. PROSERPINA. I didn’t learn this one until a few years ago, because I don’t think I’d ever heard this word pronounced correctly, in twenty years of doing Latin. It’s ProSERpina. Once you hear it you hear how it’s functionally the same name as Persephone — it has the exact same rhythm. Don’t believe me? I learned how to pronounce this word by reading Ovid. Go look at how Ovid uses the name in his hexameters. He ends them this way: Proserpina luco (Met. 5.391), Proserpina nostris (5.505), Proserpina caelum (5.530), Proserpina flores (5.554), et al.

7. MULIERES. In the singular, MUlier causes no trouble. But it has a short -e-, and so in oblique cases it’s muLIeris, etc. and in the plural muLIeres. Curious about the difference between femina and mulier? A femina is a female, and hence can refer to a horse or a cow or a spider; a mulier is a woman.

6. MAGISTER. This one is usually pronounced correctly — it’s maGISter — but some teachers not only mispronounce it but ask students to mispronounce it. “Call me ‘MA-gister.’” Teachers, don’t become mispronunciation pushers. Want a fun fact? The “magis” in magister is from the Latin word for more, while the “minis” in minister is from minus, the Latin word for less. They’re originally a contrasting pair.

5. UNDECIM. That “e” is short, so it’s UNdecim, not unDEcim. And so on with all the numbers between ten and eighteen.

4. HABEO. For some reason, this word inspires a whole host of mispronunciations — I hear them every year. Presumably it’s because the accent shifts between the first and second principal parts: HAbeo, haBEre. And some people don’t understand the way the second conjugation works. “No, it’s haBEo,” one student shamelessly attempted to correct me. “In the second conjugation, the -e is long.” “Well, it’s long,” I replied, “except in places like habeo and habeor, where it’s short.” Ah youth, the perennial chutzpah font.

3. ILLIUS/IPSIUS/ISTIUS/SOLIUS etc. I never knew that the -i- in those awful -ius genitive words (the so-called “pronominal declension”) varies in quantity until I studied with Reginald Foster, who had to correct someone’s pronunciation of these common words every day. Huius, cuius, and eius and their compounds have a short -i- or some variant thereof, but for the others the -i- is long. This changes the pronunciation: it’s il-LI-us and ip-SI-us and to-TI-us and so forth. With practice, it begins to sound wrong any other way: “toTIus mundi” has a lot more punch that “TOtius mundi.”

2. TEMPORE. O tempore, O mores. Sometimes I think it’d be worth it to stop teaching entirely, just so I never have to hear another student say tem-PO-re. It’s TEM-pore. And TEMpora. And TEMporis. Et cetera. This is not only an elementary word, but part of a larger pattern: a large number of third declension neuter words ending in -us have short penultimate vowels in their oblique cases: tempus, corpus, munus, funus, genus, holus, latus, onus, opus, litus, pectus, sidus, vulnus, etc. Ab uno disce omnes.

1. CAESAR. Well, you wouldn’t think Latin students, of all people, would mispronounce the name “Caesar” in Latin, but I hear it so often — every year, more mispronunciations than correct pronunciations — that I realized that we really need to educate the public on how to pronounce Julius Caesar’s name in Latin. No trouble on the nominative form, as it’s only two syllables: CAE-sar. But his name retains the accent on the first syllable always: CAEsarem, CAEsaris, CAEsari, CAEsare. In the plural they are CAEsares. NOT Cae-SAR-es. I think this is like another dagger into Caesar’s body every time his shade has to hear his name mispronounced in Latin. I’m fine with that if you are doing it for political reasons, just to register your disapproval of the Dictator Perpetuus, but ignoRANtia NEminem exCUsat.


[This story has been updated to remove an error. The original version called the pronunciation MEretrix incorrect; in fact both MEretrix and meREtrix are found.]

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res. This is his first time writing a “Hack Your Latin” column.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

John Byron Kuhner

Written by

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade