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Classical Latin Alphabet: 5 Things You Didn’t Know Posted by 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?

The Pantheon in Rome – a unique building in Roman architecture – has been continuously in use throughout its 2,000-year history. Its dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Along its front, the following is inscribed "M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT" meaning "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, built this when he was consul for the third time."An example of Classical Latin Alphabet. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash.

The Pantheon in Rome – a unique building in Roman architecture – has been continuously in use throughout its 2,000-year history. Its dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. An example of Classical Latin Alphabet. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash.

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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About the Author: Brittany Britanniae

Hello There! Please feel free to ask me anything about Latin Grammar, Syntax, or the Ancient World.


Comments:

  1. Tony Taylor:

    I have always assumed “v” was pronounced something like the Indians pronounce it, something like a cross between our “w” and our “f” and not a full “w”.


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