What Ancient Latin Sounded Like, And How We Know It

in History, Language Lessons | August 19th, 2016

Latin is a language

As dead as dead can be

It killed the Romans long ago, 

And now it’s killing me.

That famed ditty isn’t likely to resonate with many modern school children, but interest in ancient Rome remains fairly robust. 

We’ve come to accept that those stately ruins were once covered in graffiti.




We can recreate their meals from hors d’oevures (Boiled Eggs with Pine Nut Sauce) to dessert (Pear Patina).

Thermae Romae, a popular Japanese manga-cum-feature-film, took us inside Emperor Hadrian’s bathhouse.

But what did the Romans sound like?

Kirk DouglasSpartacus? Or Laurence Olivier’s Crassus?

The recent series Rome upheld the tradition of British accents.

Animator Josh Rudder of NativLang did a fair amount of digging in service of finding out What Latin Sounded Like, above.

(And he seems to have done so without the help of Derek Jarman’s NSFW Sebastiane, the only feature film to be filmed entirely in sermo vulgaris or vulgar Latin.)

Instead, he draws from ancient rhetorician Quintilian and Virgil’s’ poetic meter. Scroll backward through the romance languages, and you’ll see Germanic tribes trading with and fighting ancient Roman troops.

The result is not so much a reconstructive pronunciation guide as a linguistic detective story.

Related Content:

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Learn Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Classical Greek & Other Ancient Languages in 10 Lessons

Rome Reborn: Take a Virtual Tour of Ancient Rome, Circa 320 C.E.

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest comic contrasts the birth of her second child with the uncensored gore of Game of Thrones. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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  1. Maxim Gurnemanz says . . .
    August 19, 2016 / 10:56 am

    Because it was a language of pagan idolaters, who were both wanton & lascivious, the Church changed much of the pronunciation & even the grammar itself. And that I learned, along with proper classical pronunciations, back in Catholic high school, circa (id est: “kirka”) MCMLXII. So — illegitimi non carborundum!

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