Notes and Queries/Series 7/Volume 12/Number 295/English Pronunciation of Latin

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(7th S. xi. 484; xii. 36.)

Mr. C. A. Ward tells us that

"it is vile to have to sit out the Harveian oration at the College of Physicians when it gives forth its annual dose of poisoned Latinity. It is a dire joke there to see our good medical scholars voluntarily turn barbarians," &c.

To these polite remarks may I reply that ever since I was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians in 1876 the Harveian oration has always been delivered in English? If my memory serves me well, I became a member of the College in 1869. The proceedings even then were all conducted in English; and I am told that English was the language of the College many years before that.

I fear that Mr. Ward's acquaintance with the continental pronunciation of Latin is as small as his acquaintance with the customs of the College of Physicians. For the last three or four years I have been obliged to spend great part of the winter abroad, and I have failed to find anything like a uniform pronunciation of Latin in France, Italy, Spain, or Germany. I do not think a canon from Milan would have the least understanding of the Latin of a canon from Toledo. The vowels and consonants in Spanish Latin are pronounced exactly as in the vernacular Spanish. It is the same in Germany and France. There is no such thing as a pronunciation of Latin common to the four nations. Each nation gives exactly the same value to the Latin vowels and consonants as it does to those of its own tongue. Let Mr. Ward make a point of attending some church services when he is next abroad, and then let him tell us whether a uniform continental pronunciation of Latin exists.

I should like to ask Mr. Ward what evidence there is that a change in the English pronunciation of Latin was made about the time of the Reformation. I know it is commonly said that a change in pronunciation accompanied a change in religion; but I have lately been going over an inventory of the vestry of Westminster Abbey made in 1388, and the spelling of the monks of Westminster makes one believe that in the fourteenth century the pronunciation of Latin in England must have had several points of resemblance to that which we were taught in England some forty years ago, before we began to learn that everything continental was good, and everything English bad. We find words spelt as follows (see Archœologia, 1890, vol lii. pp. 216–286): "signis" for cygnis, "pissem" for piscem, "cerico" for serico, "magestatem" for maiestatem. C and j could hardly have been pronounced then as the Italian pronounces them now.

To change these habits of five hundred years and more, Mr. Ward tells us that we have only

"to bring over two scholarly Italian Latinists, put one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge, and make every one at once conform to their pronunciation. It is very easy."

How I should like to see it tried! First find the two scholarly Italians, and then make every one conform. Would an Act of Parliament be enough? J. Wickham Legg.

47, Green Street, W.

J. B. S.'s proposal that the Italian pronunciation of Latin should be adopted in this country may be accepted without demur for ecclesiastical Latin or any Latin sung or chanted, for which, in fact, that pronunciation is commonly used. Also in the rare event of having to converse in Latin—a practice deprecated by the great Italian scholars of the Renaissance—an Englishman should make shift to pronounce the words as like Italian as he can. But with regard to the classical writers, so rough and ready a mode of solving a difficult problem will hardly commend itself to scholars. The question has given rise of late years to more than one newspaper discussion. Of these far the most important took place twenty years ago, when the late H. A. J. Munro perhaps the first Latin scholar this country has produced in the present century published a pamphlet on the subject, and a syllabus was put forth by him and the Latin professor at Oxford. This revised pronunciation was adopted in many quarters, and a Girton girl who followed it is said to have startled an examiner by reading and translating vicissim as "We kiss him by turns." Apparently, however, the reform is not making way. This is partly through uncertainty. To take the first two words of the 'Æneid.' Should the r in arma be trilled? How should the v and the q in virumque be pronounced; and had um a nasal sound? To form an opinion as to the classical pronunciation a man must consider all the remarks on the subject in the ancient writers themselves. He must have a minute knowledge of the history of Latin prosody. He must acquaint himself with the evidence afforded by transliteration of Latin words into another tongue, and of foreign words into Latin, and that afforded by the forms of words derived direct from the Latin. At present very few are competent for this undertaking, and these few have not been unanimous in their conclusions. There is the further practical difficulty that, assuming the pronunciation to be known, it by no means follows that English organs—for the most part so unsuccessful with French, in spite of all the facilities of acquiring it—would cope better with Latin. Lastly, as the head master of Harrow has pointed out, the school curriculum is now so widened that a teacher is forced to hesitate at introducing an additional difficulty in the acquisition of any subject. H. E. P. P.

I heartily agree with those who wish that our professors and teachers would adopt the foreign pronunciation of the vowels. Little more is required to assimilate the pronunciation of the Englishman with that of the foreigner. I have found no difficulty in conversing with an Italian priest in (dog) Latin by merely adhering to that rule. The fact is every people pronounce Latin as they pronounce their own language; and in the matter of vowels we happen to differ from the Continent. Not that their usage is uniform. The Frenchman and the Italian differ greatly in the sound of u; neither can they pronounce the Greek x; and neither can Frenchman, Italian, or German pronounce the Greek θ. But in charity I would not therefore call them "brutal, " "vile, " or "barbarous. " Our professors might also warn their pupils not to slur over a final r, as is so common in English. J. Carrick Moore.

Mr Ward's suggestion that two scholarly Italian latinists should be brought over here, and stationed, the one at Oxford and the other at Cambridge, and that everybody should be obliged to conform to their pronunciation, can hardly have been made seriously. Who is to decide what the proper pronunciation of Latin is? A notion has lately got abroad that our modern system began at the time of the Reformation; but there seems to be no proof of this. In every country Latin is pronounced like the native language, whatever that may be, and our peculiarity is chiefly due to the fact that we pronounce four of the five vowels differently from other European nations. But Mr Ward's plan would fail, because the continentalists do not all sound their consonants alike. Take the word dicere, for instance. A Frenchman says dee-sere; an Italian dee-chere; a German dee-tsere, or dee-kere. Does a Spaniard say dee-there? A German always makes g hard; a Frenchman and an Italian make it in most cases soft, but with modifications.

In approximating our Latin to that of the continentalists we must not expect too much. Our consonants must be left as they are (only ti mus not be made into shi) the vowels being sounded as in Italian or German; a (father), e (labour] i (needle), u (poodle). The u not to be sounded as in French.

Latin is a foreign language, and should be treated as such. No one would think of teaching French in any other way. If, in addition, an attempt were made to rescue the letter r, which seems to be steadily fading out of our language, a still further improvement might be attained. I do not allude to the droll sound that sometimes shocks us when we are told that Bawabbas was a wobber. I know a canon who always so reads it. I mean the slurring over the letter and calling a carriage a ca-a-ge an orange an awnge, a moral a mol, and so on. The way in which r is slurred over or altogether omitted by the average Englishman gives him a marked peculiarity when he speaks any foreign language. If he has had a teacher whose ear is quick to detect this infirmity, the cure is possible except in those cases I have mentioned, where r is distinctly turned into w; they, I fear, are hopeless. J. Dixon.

Mr Ward's advocacy of my contention was well worth earning by double the pains it took to start the discussion. I am entirely at one with him in his assertion that "the beauty of Virgil read this way [with the Italian pronunciation], instead of as now, is enhanced a hundredfold," and I hope his suggestion as to placing an Italian professor at Oxford, and another at Cambridge, may not be strangled at its birth. A sojourn of several years on the Continent amongst Latin-speaking students of various nationalities, and a deep attachment to the noble language of old Rome, have made me an enthusiast in this matter.

Mr Warren's heat-rays amuses me far more than even my high trees. The joke loses its intended piquancy by over-reaching itself, for neither old Romans nor modern Continentals would thus pronounce hi tres, simply because the t in tres is never joined to the hi in articulation, and the e is short. Of a truth, "too much sense of the ludicrous is, all things considered, a worse misfortune than too little."

Sherborne must surely be poking fun at the readers of 'N. & Q.' in suggesting to them that the modern Italian pronunciation of Rieti must have been the old Roman one of Reate. The explanation is ingenuous, but ultra crepidam, and therefore is no proof that Latium was graced with Britain's effeminate manner of mouthing her virile old tongue. Rather, as I take it, the wear and tear of time are responsible for the change of vowels in Reate. As to the alleged identity of pronunciation of y between the Roman and English methods, does Sherbourne forget that the Latins had, strictly speaking, no such letter in their alphabet? It was coined in imitation of Υ, was used only in words of Greek origin (like z=ζ), and was uttered like the rest of the language to which it belonged, and Greek had no more an English pronunciation than Latin. J. B. S.