Classical Latin Alphabet: 5 Things You Didn’t Know Posted by Brittany Britanniae on Apr 28, 2021 in Grammar, Latin Language
Today, we will be learning about the Classical Latin alphabet. It should be noted that there are older versions of the Latin alphabet, but today’s focus is on the classical version. Here are some facts you may have not known about the Classical Latin alphabet.
#1. Only 23 Letters in Classical Latin Alphabet
The earliest known inscriptions in the Latin alphabet date from the 6th century BC. So, the Romans used just 23 letters to write Latin; that’s after they added the Greek letters “Y” and “Z” to the alphabet they inherited from the Etruscans. Can you guess which letters are missing?
Letter A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
#2. No Lowercase Letters
The Latin alphabet started out as uppercase letters known as roman square capitals. This can be seen on the Pantheon image “M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, built this when he was consul for the third time.”
The lowercase letters evolved through cursive styles that developed to adapt the inscribed alphabet to being written with a pen. To learn more about the development of lowercase letters, click here.
#3. Letters Doing Double Duty
For phonetic reasons, the symbols “J”, “U” and “W” were added to our alphabet during the Middle Ages. The Latin language used an “I” symbol where we use a “J”, a “V” symbol where we use a “U”. Think of the famous text “SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS…” or Julius Caesar = YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr.
#4. Pronunciation of Words
If you see a V or U in Latin, they are both the same letter. The letter is pronounced either “w” or “u” as in English (as a consonant or as a vowel respectively). There is no “v” sound as in English in ordinary Latin.
In Latin, there are two semivowels, i and u/v. When these begin words or occur between two vowels, they have the value of a consonant.
- Semivowel u is pronounced as w in English “was”
- u always as the u in English “put”
- ū as the oo in English “boot”
- ui like wi in English “wick”
For example, uia (way or path in Latin) was not “oo-ee-ah” but rather “wee-ah” and is nowadays written via.
#5. What about “W” in the Classical Latin Alphabet?
So, the “w” consonant did not exist in Latin. Ironically, the letter “w” is pronounced “double u” even though it technically looks closer to “double v.” Latin’s pronunciation of V as a U sound is the reason “w” is called “double-u.”
While Latin is a dead language, hopefully, these points about the alphabet and pronunciation help you on your journey of speaking a dead language.
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