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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Comments (5)
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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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