In the first class of the Latin from Scratch course, we’ll begin with an introduction to Latin grammar: the Latin alphabet, important concepts related to vowels, the basic syllable stress rules, clitics, and the general classification of the words in Latin.
I explain everything in the following video ():
The Latin alphabet and its pronunciation
The English alphabet (and the one used by most western cultures) comes from the Latin alphabet, so it is quite similar:
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
a b c d e f g h i k l m n o p q r s t u x y z
The traditional Latin alphabet has 23 letters or graphemes, all of them present in the English alphabet, although not all of the English letters exist in the Latin alphabet. Some points to take into account:
- in classical Latin there is no letter j, which is only used in outdated or ecclesiastical versions
- both u and v are actually the same letter, but, contrary to j, they are written differently depending on pronunciation in most modern editions
- the letters x and z are double consonants (x → /ks/; z → /dz/)
In this Latin course we will be using the so-called pronuntiatio restituta, which is the one that linguists have reconstructed for the classical Latin. It is different from the traditional English pronunciation for Latin, and also from the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation which you might hear in many other countries or movies.
Vowels, semiconsonants, and diphthongs
The Latin vowels are a, e, i, o, u, which can be either long or short (think feel vs fill). On top of that, both i and u can be either pure vowels or semiconsonants (think yes and will). They are semiconsonants in these two basic contexts:
- at the beginning of a word followed by a vowel: Iulius, validus
- between two vowels: ovum, eiecit
We can summarize it as follows: i and u are semiconsonants when they are at the beginning of a syllable and immediately followed by a vowel.
In classical Latin we have only three diphthongs:
Any other combination of two vowels is a hiatus (or semiconsonant + vowel), even if in English or in romance languages they are diphthongs.
In Latin there are no words stressed on the last syllable: they can only be stressed either on the penultimate or antepenultimate.
The difficulty lies in the words with three or more syllables, since we will have to calculate the stressed syllable. For that, we always have to look at the length of the penultimate syllable:
- if the penultimate is long (¯), it is stressed: a-mō-ris [amóɾis]
- if the penultimate is short (˘), it is not stressed: mi-lĭ-tes [mílites]
So the question is… How can we know if a syllable is long or short?
A syllable is long when…
- it contains a diphthong: Grae‑ci‑a
- the vowel is immediately followed by two consonants (or double consonant): hōstis, dūxi
A syllable is short when…
- the vowel is followed by another vowel: Grae‑cĭ‑a
We cannot know the length of many syllables just by following these rules, so we have to check the dictionary: amicus, erroris, operam…
We also need to take into account that the same word, depending on its case, can change its accent: amor [ámoɾ]; amoris [amóɾis].
Unstressed words (proclitics and enclitics)
Most unstressed words are clitics, that is, since they don’t have their own stress, they need to be supported in pronunciation by a contiguous stressed word.
Proclitic words are the ones which are supported by the next word. They are prepositions, conjunctions…
Enclitic words are those which are supported by the previous word, not only in pronunciation but also in spelling, and they are much more important:
- -que “and” | puer puellaque “the boy and the girl”
- -ve “o” | puer puellave “the boy or the girl”
- -ne = interrogative particle | venisne? “are you coming?”
A word with an enclitic loses changes its original stress to the syllable immediately before the enclitic: hominem [óminem] → hominemque [ominémkwe].
Classification of Latin words
Quite similarly to English, Latin words fall into one of two groups:
- Inflectional (they change): nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs.
- Non-inflectional (they don’t change): prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, interjections, particles.
That’s quite enough for an introduction! In the next class, we’ll start actually learning some (very important) grammar!