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One of the unfortunate aspects of learning a dead language is that immersion is almost impossible. In the case of Latin, few people are able to speak the language, as teaching concentrates on translation of text to and from a native language. Proper pronunciation is an essential part of learning any language as it solidifies in our minds both the use and function of the words. This is especially true for native English speakers as so many Latin words have found their way into English lexicon. In the case of Latin, pronunciation for English speakers is quite easy because the language largely uses the same alphabet as English.
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The Latin Alphabet
The Latin alphabet is similar to English except that it lacks the letters j and w. The letter v was used originally for both the vowel u and the consonant v, but in modern Latin instruction, both v and u are used for distinction. The letter k is found in Latin but it is quite rare, found only in a few words. Both y and z were used in later Latin and then only for words that came directly from ancient Greek. The rest of the Latin alphabet mirrors than of modern English.
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Latin vowels are either long or short with most modern learning systems using a macron above the long vowels. The long vowels are held for about twice as long as the short. Macrons, however, were not used in actual ancient text; the writer and reader just knew when the vowel was long or short from experience. Listed below is a general guide to the pronunciation of both long and short Latin vowels.
a – long as in father, short as in pat
e – long as in they, short as in set
i – long as in machine, short as in pit
o – long as in over, short as in off
u – long as in rude, short as in put
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A diphthong is a combination of two vowels pronounced as one syllable. Latin has six.
ae as ai in aisle
au as ou in mouse
ei as reign
eu as e + u pronounced quickly without pause. (Rare)
oe as oi in oil
ui as in u + i like gooey
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Consonants in Latin are largely pronounced as in English. Exceptions to these similarities are noted below:
bs as ps pronounced as one sound
bt as pt pronounced as one sound
b as English b
c as in card but never as in city
g as in get but never as in gem
h as in English but never vocalized and somewhat softer
i as y in you, later consonant i became j
q, always followed by u as in quick
r, thrilled similar to Spanish
s as in sea but never as in ease
t as in tear but never as sh in nation
v as w in wine never as in vine
x as in ax but never as g in exit
ch as ck in block but never as in churn
ph as in up hill but never as in philosophy
th as in hot house but never as in thick or the
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As illustrated above, Latin sounds are not much different from English. In fact, Latin is a bit easier since most letters have only one possible pronunciation. Proper pronunciation can even help in determining a word’s meaning. For example, Latin liber (book) and liber (free) are spelled the same. But liber (book) is pronounced as lee-bear while liber (free) is pronounced as lib-air. Use of a macron over the in liber (free) would give the pronunciation and word meaning away in written text. No such luck, however, when Latin is spoken.