What Ancient Latin Sounded Like, And How We Know It

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:

1,600-Year-Old Illuminated Manuscript of the Aeneid Digitized & Put Online by The Vatican

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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  • Maxim Gurnemanz says:

    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!

  • Gunnar says:

    Not true that the Church intentionally “changed” Latin to distance itself from “Pagan idolaters”. In the 4th century, the Church produced a Latin translation of the Bible, but in “vulgar” Latin (now called the Vulgate) instead of classical Latin. The reason? More people in Italy at that time spoke vulgar Latin, which was essentially a dialect. The Church wanted the Bible to be understood by as many people as possible. We now call the dialect of Latin that it employed, “ecclesiastical”. Centuries later, Latin was no longer a living language, and the Bible was understood only by scholars and clerics.

  • Vic van Lijf says:

    This video would be so much more of interest for many if it wasn’t spoken so fast. Think of the multitudes with English as second language. Nevertheless very intersting!

  • Rt Rev Kenneth G Walsh Jr says:

    Waldo Sweet produced an oral-aural Program
    over 60 years ago.
    Jesuit Novices in Wernersville, PA in Fall
    1958 began this program. We talked about this very system this past weekend at a get-together
    I had studied Latin for six years & then
    added two more. The same for Greek!
    Plus 30 years later I took the TEA, Austin, TX
    Certification test in Latin.
    I taught Latin I-V, G-9-12 for 20 years,
    1989-2009 & then retired from Latin
    Teaching. I have Sub-taught in TX,
    Conroe ISD, Montgomery Co.
    For vocabulary building I taught
    Word Power for 5.5 years in Baytown,
    TX along with the regular Latin courses.
    Church pronunciation I usedr for classroom
    Pronunciation. Church pronunciation went
    On longer than Classical.
    The European-Mediterranean nations
    Took Classical Latin & changed it to
    Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian,
    Rumanian, etc.
    Church pronunciation has remained more
    consistent in 2,000 years.
    +Ken Walsh

  • Edward Saulnier says:

    I disagree. As a linguist especially one who is interested in the Indo-European languages, I can’t accept this non-linguistic reasoning. It is not mostly relgious practices that caused the change og Latin pronunciation. I see it as a linguistic process. It goes beyond just dividing the indo-european languages into Centem and Satem languages. But it is definitely linguistic change.

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