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Learn Latin

Learn Latin |

Lesson 22

What did Latin sound like when the Romans spoke it? The simple answer is that no one knows for sure. There are lots of modern interpretations. At my old school, Westminster, our Latin prayers were spoken in a robust English accent. Julius Caesar was, of course, an Englishman.

One thing we do know is whether the Romans pronounced certain vowels long or short, because of the way they scan in poetry, as we saw in our earlier scansion lesson. Otherwise, though, it’s tricky to be certain. My hunch is that it didn’t sound very different from Italian. That’s certainly what that great amateur classicist Patrick Leigh Fermor thought. 

In the new collection of his letters, Dashing for the Post, he writes, in a 1980 letter, of ‘My secret decision, at the age of about 20, always to pronounce Latin, to myself, not in either the “old”, the “new” or the “Erasmian” [as suggested by Erasmus] way, but simply as Italian. It turns it into a living language at once, instead of a stone-dead inscription on blurred and overgrown marble.’

Latin certainly sounded wonderfully alive when I heard a Bologna professor at a classics conference in Rimini read out some Horace. He spoke it just like Italian, con brio, and it sounded so much more convincing than the plodding Anglo-Latin I’d been speaking for years. 

It makes sense, not least because Italian hasn’t really changed that much from Latin over the centuries, apart from lazily dropping consonants at the end of words, and cutting back on the number of cases. Compare these two sentences in Latin and Italian and see if you can work out what they both mean (i.e. they both mean the same thing): Bonus cantum cantat. Un buono canta un canto. 

In honour of Leigh Fermor’s guide to Latin pronunciation, see how you would pronounce some of his favourite lines from Horace. In a celebrated wartime escapade in 1944, Leigh Fermor and a team of Greek partisans kidnapped the German general Heinrich Kreipe and bundled him across Crete on to a boat to Cairo. Their route took them via Mount Ida, Zeus’s birthplace. General Kreipe, on seeing the snow-capped mountain, recited the opening lines from Horace’s Ode 1.9:

Vides ut alta stet nive 

candidum Soracte...

At which point, Leigh Fermor declaimed the next lines:

nec iam sustineant onus

silvae laborantes geluque

flumina constiterint acuto?

Say these lovely lines out loud in your best Italianate Latin. And see if you can translate them, too.

Harry Mount


1. A good man sings a song. 

2. You see how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow, And the straining woods can’t sustain their burden any more, And the rivers are frozen with sharp ice.

This story was from November 2016 issue. Subscribe Now