The pronunciation of classical words in English

The pronunciation of
classical words in English
1. Assimilated and unassimilated
• Two types of classical words and phrases:
• Those that have been fully assimilated into
English, and have simply become English
words (all the early borrowings, also most
borrowings during and before the
Renaissance), and
• True classical words that are either
recognizably recent borrowings, or words
and phrases fossilized in legal or scientific
2. Consonants in unassimilated words
• Generally accepted that the consonants of
classical words in English should be
pronounced in accord with the standard
values associated with those letters in
English orthography. In most cases, those
in Latin and in English have remained the
Some examples
• prima facie
• Ancient Rome: [pri ma ’fa ki ei]
• Modern English: [’prai mə ’fei ʃi i]
• ex officio
• Ancient Rome: [ɛks o ’fɪ ki o]
• Modern English: [ɛks o ’fɪ ʃi o]
• ceteris paribus
• Ancient Rome: [’kei tei ris ’pa ri bus]
• Modern English: [’sei tei ris ’pa ri bus]
• sui generis
• Ancient Rome: [su i ’gei nei ris]
• Modern English: [swi ’dʒei nei rəs]
<v> was pronounced [w] in classical Latin.
volenti (to a consenting person)
Ancient Rome: [wo lein ti]
Modern English: [vo ’lein ti]
• in vino veritas (wine will loose your tongue)
• Ancient Rome: [in ’wino ’wei ri tas]
• Modern English: [in ’vino ’vei ri tas]
Summary of consonants
Letter Classical Anglicized
[k] always [s] before i, e
pace, et cetera
[g] always [dʒ] before i, e ab origine,
[t] always [ʃ] before iV, e ab initio, ratio
[w] always [v]
(modus) vivendi
3. Vowels in unassimilated words
• Vowels can be pronounced in accord with
two quite different systems:
• UK: as normally pronounced in English in
that position in the word.
• USA: as normally pronounced in other
European languages such as Spanish,
German, or French.
• In either case, not the way pronounced in
classical times, though the European-USA
tradition is closer.
European values
• <a> or <au> as in father, nausea,
represented as [α].
• <e> as in fiancé, represented as [ei].
• <i> or <y> as in machine, represented as
• <o> as in hope, represented as [o].
• <u> as either in boot or cute, represented
as [u] or [ju].
• <oe> like <i> if long, but [ɛ] if short (eg
Anglicized (UK)
<a> not consistent: [æ, ei,α]
Should usually be pronounced as [α].
tabula rasa [’tα bu lα ’rα sə]
pater familias [’pα tə fa ’mi li əs]
alma mater [’αl mə ’mα tə]
Fossilized pronunciations
• Many Latin words and phrases have a
well-established and widespread
pronunciation that deviated from the
general principles formulated above.
• The British pronunciation for prima facie
[’prai mə …] is so well known that we think
it is perfectly acceptable.
• <-i> at the end of a borrowed word is very
likely to be [-ai], as in alumni, a priori, loci,
gemini, magi, nuclei, but in phrases like
advocatus diaboli, anno Domini, memento
mori, modus vivendi, and vox populi, both
[-ai] and [-i] are freely used,
• while in lapis lazuli the most common is
with [-i].
4. Fully assimilated classical words
• Words are treated exactly like English
• The pronunciation of consonants spelled
<ch>, <g>, <x> varies depending on
whether the source of the word is Greek or
• Latin: channel, chart, chapel, chisel
• Via French: <ch>=[ʃ], chamois, chute,
cliché, douche, machine, moustache. But
there is a tendency to replace [ʃ] by [tʃ] in
words like avalanche and niche.
• Greek: <ch>=[k]
• archangel, Achilles, chi, stomach, chaos,
chronology, character, echo, chimera,
technology, charisma
• Some roots of Greek origin: chem ‘alloy’,
chir ‘hand’, chlor ‘green’, chrom ‘color’,
mechan ‘device’, tachy ‘speed’, machy
• When followed by a front vowel, i, y, or e,
it is normally pronounced as [dʒ], as in
gem, gin, gym. This is generally true of
both Latin and Greek words, though there
are exceptions to the rule in the native
vocabulary: gear, geek, geezer, gold, get,
gill, gimmick, giggle.
• One Greek root, gyn ‘woman’ has an
interesting story:
• [g-] in gynecology, gynecocracy, gynecoid,
gynogenesis; in some dictionaries both [g]
and [dʒ] are allowed.
• [-dʒ-] in androgynous, heterogynous,
• Normally pronounced [ks]: cortex,
dexterous, expert, sextet.
• In some cases [k]+[s] can be reconstructed:
flec + s + ible  inflexible, para + dog + s
 paradox, seg + s  sex.
• In some cases the spelling has not been
agreed on: connection (US) / connexion
(UK), inflection (US) / inflexion (UK).
However both have complexion and
• Yiddish laks ‘salmon’, German Lachs has
now been re-spelled as lox, and
Americans are familiar with spellings such
as thanx, sox, and truxtop.
• Generally, if the initial <x> in a word is not
capitalized, or hyphenated as in X-rated,
x-ray, the word is Greek and its first
consonant is [z].
• In transcriptions from non-classical
alphabets <x> is usually [ʃ] as in the place
names Xian [ʃian], Xinxiang [ʃin ʃiang],
except in the transcription of Xosa, or
Xhosa, in which X stands for [kh].

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