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Why I read Latin out loud


I strongly believe that listening to Latin and reading Latin out loud are essential activities in the study of Latin because they contribute to fluency in the language.


By fluency, I mean the ability to read Latin texts fluently, to examine confidently a text written in Latin and to understand its meaning. 


I do not have in mind fluency in communicating in Latin, either in spoken communication or in written communication. Being able to communicate in Latin is a high priority for some teachers and students of Latin. For me, however, communicating in Latin is not a high priority because Latin is a dead language; there are no native Latin speakers to communicate with, except in the form of the written texts those native speakers left behind for us to read.


Consequently, the audio materials that I prepare and share online do not assume that the cultivation of a specific type of Latin accent is highly desirable, as it would be in the acquisition of a living foreign language. There were many "Latin accents" during the long expanse of time that Latin was spoken as a native language and then, later, as a scholarly language. For my purposes - promoting reading fluency - it really does not matter what accent you choose to cultivate. I have written this statement in order to explain my own goals and methods in reading Latin out loud simply to show one possible set of options. Please do not think that I am trying to impose this system on anybody else. Instead, I am simply explaining what has worked for me in order to reinforce and extend my own fluency in being able to read and comprehend a wide variety of Latin texts. I would rate my reading comprehension level in Latin as high, and I know that reading out loud has been an important part of the learning process for me.


First and foremost, when I am reading Latin out loud, I focus on the meaning of the words. My accent when reading aloud is recognizably an English accent, but it is the English accent of someone who understands and appreciates the meaning of the Latin words she is reading.


Unlike many other Latin teachers, I do not make a special effort to distinguish between long and short vowels when reading Latin out loud. Although ancient Latin did distinguish between long and short vowels, this distinction disappeared over time, and the result is that vowel length is not a phonological feature of any of the modern Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). In the modern Roman languages, there are some important distinctions in vowel quality, but there is no systematic, structural difference in vowel quantity as there was in ancient Latin. So, while the ancient Romans did distinguish between long and short vowels, this distinction disappeared in later forms of Latin, and ceased to function as the modern Romance languages emerged.


English, likewise, distinguishes between vowel qualities, but not vowel quantity. Vowel quantity is not something that we English-speakers are able to perceive naturally or to produce naturally. As a result, most speakers of English who aspire to speak Latin with long and short vowels are only altering the quality of the vowels; they are not actually altering the quantity of the vowels. It is only with time-consuming and arduous practice that a speaker of English can learn to both hear and produce reconstructed distinctions of Latin vowel quantity. In terms of my own goals (being able to read and comprehend written Latin texts), the time I might spend in mastering this reconstructed system of vowel quantity is instead better spent in developing mastery in other aspects of the language (vocabulary, morphology, written style, etc.).


At the same time, I do rely on reconstructed evidence for vowel quantity in order to identify the word stress. For native English speakers, word stress is one of the most fundamental phonological features of our language. If someone puts the stress on the wrong syllable of an English word, that word is likely to be incomprehensible. Because word stress is such a fundamental feature of English, I personally find it very helpful to pay careful attention to the rules for word stress in Latin. It helps me to remember the words and retain the vocabulary. Luckily, the rules for word stress are not complicated in Latin (as opposed to, say, ancient Greek, with its complex interaction of pitch accent and word stress). In my reading of Latin, I try to apply the rules for word stress accurately.


With regard to meter, I do stress the long element in the foot when reading poetry. This is a personal choice based on my belief that the Roman quantitative vowel system is essentially inaccessible to us today. Since the Roman metrical system was based on quantity, that means that Roman meters are essentially inaccessible to us today as well. Still, there is a certain formal pleasure to be gained from reading the meters with a stress on the long element of the foot. At least, I find it quite pleasurable to read poetry this way, since even in this reduced form, the differences between epic poetry and elegiac poetry come through loud and clear. Many other people prefer to read poetry following the rules of prose accentuation (with or without the strict cultivation of vowel quantity); that also seems perfectly fine to me! Some people even swear they can "feel" the meter while reading the lines of verse with prose accentuation. This is not the case for me; in order to really grasp the metrical line, I need to stress the long elements in the feet. I am glad for people who are able to transcend this need, but until I am able to achieve the same transcendence myself, I will continue to resort to reading metrical lines with a stress on the long elements.


As regards other aspects of spoken Latin, I do not worry a great deal about "English accent" in my reading. Most English speakers tend, automatically and unconsciously, to diphthongize their vowels; I do not think there is anything particularly wrong with that, although with a lot of practice you can learn to purify your vowels (again, though, I prefer to spend my time reading rather than purifying my vowels). So too with the unconscious aspiration English speakers give to "p" and "t" and other consonants. I tend to pronounce the Latin "v" as "w," but it also sounds fine to me when people pronounce it as "v" in Ecclesiastical style. I tend to trill the Latin "r" rather than use the flat American "r" but it also sounds fine to me if people use the American "r" or a different style of trill.


As someone who has put a fair amount of Latin audio online, I have had the sad experience of being critiqued, even attacked, by people who are convinced that there are absolute rights and wrongs in the reading of Latin. Given the precarious status of Latin learning in the world today, I think these attacks are profoundly misguided, doing far more harm than good. It is important to be clear about your own methods and goals (which is why I am publishing this statement here), but I do not think it is ever appropriate to impose those methods and goals on other people. Unfortunately, in matters of Latin pronunciation, there are some people who feel compelled to try to constrain the way that other people choose to read.


As a result of the intimidating climate created by these modern-day Momuses, many people, including many Latin teachers, have such doubts and anxiety about Latin pronounciation that they avoid the matter entirely. They do not spend time reading Latin out loud and this, in turn, prompts their students to feel anxious about reading Latin out loud. This circulus vitiosus can be hard to break.


My hope is simply that everybody will think carefully about how and why they want to speak Latin aloud, and then just do it! I have outlined here my own approach to the reading of Latin - but that is not to say that anybody else should or must read as I do. If you want to enjoy reading Latin texts out loud, then just start reading - in whatever way you want! Just imagine all those "barbarians" in ancient times and what their Latin might have sounded like, after all. As long as you are making noise in grammatically correct Latin, this is a good thing. Over time, your goals and aspirations may change - but the only way to begin to achieve those goals is to start reading Latin out loud now.




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