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W.S. Allen, in his “Vox Latina”, dismisses the idea that Latin had a pitch accent, despite the description of this accent in great detail by a number of Roman grammarians writing prior to the fourth century AD. Allen states that the accent is “a minor detail of the Greek”. This would be like saying that the musical accent of Italian was “ a minor detail of Italian”. In fact, the survival of the pitch accent, albeit in modified form, in Italian, and the survival of tonality in the five main Romance languages descended from Latin. provides evidence that educated Romans adopted it into their Latin. Cicero himself speaks of the musicality of Latin, likening Spoken Latin to a form of singing. Further evidence exists in the adoption of the tonal accent into Hebrew recitation. Indeed, the Jews adopted the Greek system, including the method for manually marking the tones. (Manuum variis motibus altitudinem, depressionem, flexus vocis significabant) Talmudic texts were published with accents for this tonal singing, until well into the mediaeval period. This accent has similarities to the Greek accent , and probably developed in imitation of the Greek recitation of the Laws to a chanted tune.

Edgar H. Sturtevant, "The Pronunciation of Greek and Latin" University of Chicago Press, 1920, gives a much more developed analysis of the accent than Allen does, and he reaches the opposite conclusion. In paragraph 214 of The Pronunciation of Greek and Latin, Sturtevant sets forth the summary of his argument:

"214. The evidence compels us to conclude that in the period of the classical and post-classical literature the Latin accent involved both stress and high pitch upon the same syllables. For stress we have abundant evidence also for both the pre-classical and the latest periods; but we learn directly of the Latin pitch only for the period from about 100 B.C. to about 300 A.D. It is probable, however, that it existed both earlier and later. In fact, it is not unlikely that the considerable element of pitch in the modern Italian accent is a direct inheritance from Latin."

Bennett, along with David (see below), both of whom I regard as authoritative on this matter, come down in favour of the "Greek" accent. Herman and Wright in “Vulgar Latin” also hold the view that the accent in Classical times was a tone accent (pg 36).

One major plank of the argument regarding Classical Latin and tone versus stress, (Vulgar Latin, J Herman) is defeated by Hungarian, which “has a very strong stress accent involving intensity, while at the same time a whole operating system of vowels based on distinctions in length”.

In other words, a clear strong stress accent and a vowel system based on phonological length distinctions are not ipso facto incompatible. Yet one hears this recited again and again by Classicists, educated linguists and laymen alike, so often has this notion been repeated, that is has taken on authority simply by dint of repetition. I am not sure with which linguists this canard arose – for canard it surely is. There is no empirical scientific evidence for this opinion, only evidence that weighs against. Indeed, as Bennett notes, no human language has either an exclusive tonal accent or an exclusive loud-soft or stress accent. Some languages lean more towards the stress accent than the tonal accent, and others vice versa but the only human speech that would be devoid of tonal variations would be a totally monotone language, which, as far as one may suppose, does not exist, except in the minds of some misguided Latinists.

Classical Latin had both a stress accent, with tonal differentiation, and vowel length distinctions. Earlier Roman Grammarians assert quite explicitly that Latin used a tonal accent, similar to the Greek, and only from the fourth century onward to Roman grammarians talk about relative loudness, as opposed to pitch. (pg 36 Vulgar Latin, J. Herman & R. Wright, 2000, Penn State Press.)

The question of the nature of the Classical Latin accent was initially argued for cogently in English by Abbott, in his paper “The Accent in Vulgar and Formal Latin” (Classical Philology, II ppp 444 ff). Abbott held the view that the accent of the common people continued to be one of stress, but educated Romans developed an accent in which pitch predominated. This view is reasonable enough, when we consider to what extent Roman literature is based on the Greek. Also, educated Romans spoke Greek, with its pitch accent. This view is also supported by R.G. Kent ( Transactions of the American Philological Association, LI, pp19 ff), and Turner (Classical Review, 1912, pp147 ff).

Kent writes “In the middle of the second century BC the Greek teachers of the Roman youth set a fashion of speaking Latin with a pitch accent, for as Greeks they kept this peculiarity of their mother tongue when they learned Latin. From that time on, Latin was spoken with a pitch accent by the highly educated class, while the general populace retained the stress accent” (quoted on pg 55 of “Accentual Change and Language Contact” J. Salmons, 1992, Routledge.

Another recent study in support of the Pitch accent, is “The Non-European and Semitic Languages”, Saul Levin, SUNY Press, pg 236 ff

“ The ancient grammarians say clearly that the accent of Latin is either acute or circumflex, and they describe it just like Greek. In many details the distributions of acute and circumflex [between the Latin and Greek] agrees remarkably.”.

Levin continues to say “ Some in modern times have wrongly doubted, or rejected altogether, the testimony of the Roman Grammarians about accent. But since Latin literature conforms to the syllabification and vowel quantity of Greek, the literary language of Rome can hardly have failed to employ a pitch accent compatible with such versification and prose rhythm.” He then says even more emphatically, “ It will not do to dismiss the Latin pitch accent as an artificial imitation of Greek. The most classical Latin, the kind most thoroughly described in our sources, is the most thoroughly Hellenized. If Latin was ever free from Greek influence in some prehistoric time, that Latin is unknown to us, and to reconstruct it, be peeling off what we may label the literary, Hellenizing features, is a fantasy……..Admitting that there was a raised pitch does not conflict with the stress which undoubtedly was present in early Latin.”

See also the seminal work of J. Vendryes, “recherches sur l’histoire et les effets de l’intensite initiale en latin” (Paris 1902), which is quoted by Bennett.

“New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin” Andrew Sihler 1995, OUP , pg 241 also argues in favour of the pitched accent.

“ Roman Grammarians, down to the 4th C AD, describe the Latin accent in terms only appropriate for a pitch accent. Scholars have been wary as taking this as cogent, however, as not only is the terminology of Roman Grammarians taken over entire from Greek, their statements are often cribbed from Greek sources. Some scholars protest, however, that ancient authorities could hardly have thus identified Greek and Latin accent had there not been at least an appreciable element of pitch in the latter….The familiarity of educated Romans with Greek accent in both practice and theory probably would not have caused them to adopt an element of accent wholly irrelevant for their natural speech, but could have made them more aware of an existing element of pitch, and even to a studied enhancement of it – Latin with a Greek accent, if you will, in oratory or recitations of poetry”

Pulgram 1975, pg 116, quoted in “From Latin to Spanish”, Paul M Lloyd, Diane Publishing, 1987, argues that speakers of Classical Latin adopted the Greek pitch accent, and certainly made an effort to adopt it on formal occasions, if not in general speech.

“A New Theory of the Greek Accent” A.P. David, Oxford University Press, 2006 pg 76-7 is the most recent, and authoritative of the new school of scholars who promote the view that the original statements of Quintillian, etc, are accurate descriptions of Latin as it was spoken. Here is Davis' argument:

“It is also possible that Greek forms with an acute on the antepenult are a product of the reflex described in Vendryes’ Law, if the Latin penult in these words was heard to be pronounced with a circumflex.

Might there have been such a contonation in Latin? A simple synchronic picture, which accords with the traditional account, emerges if we assume a contonation. We are informed by a recent commentator that “ Roman Grammarians, down to the 4th century, describe L[atin] accent in terms appropriate only for a pitch accent” (quoting A.Sihler, see above, pg 241).

Modern scholars, however, tend to see a sort of ‘Greek envy’ in this native description and to be dismissive. But if we frame the new rule for Latin in terms of a recessive contonation, where the voice was required where possible to rise two morae before the ultima – without, in the case of this language, any stipulation as to the quantity of the ultima – the traditional stress rules for polysyllabic words in Latin automatically follow, if the combination of pitch and quantity worked in the way that I have described for Greek. A long penult, with two morae, containing the rise combined with the Latin version of the svarita, would produce a circumflex on the penult (amIcus); [circumflex on the capitalised I] while a short penult (of one mora) would cause the rise to revert back to one mora to the antepenult, producing the Latin acute with a deemphasised svarita (facilis).

In making an authoritative correction, Quintillian actually points to this recessive rule. Discussing errors in accentuation, he cites CethEgus [circumflex on the capitalised E] as properly having a flex on the penult (Institutio Oratorio 1.5):the common error was to pronounce the penult grave in this word instead of circumflex, which apparently rendered the penult short. (A circumflex requires two morae). He implies that this change in the quantity of the penult necessitates an acute first syllable (Cethegus) [with acute on the first e] – an erroneous pronunciation, but one which conforms to the proposed rule. The Latin accent was a recessive contonation, a rise and fall, where the rise occurred, wherever possible, on the second mora before the ultima.”

This is sound reasoning for dismissing W.S. Allen’s view.

As a final point, I would like to note, that one reason why one seldom hears Latin declaimed with this accent, is that one seldom hears Classical Greek spoken with it, even though there is not even a sliver of doubt that Classical Greek was spoken with a pitch accent. Current practice, however, is not necessarily a guide to good practice, and I would advocate the use of the tonal accent, for purely pedagogical reasons – it makes Latin more intelligible, and also makes clearer distinctions between stressed and unstressed, unaccented and accented syllables, and long and short vowels.

In monosyllables, vowels that are long take the circumflex, and vowels that are short take the acute.


Polysyllables take the circumflex accent when the penult is long by nature (This simply means that it has a long vowel, see above), and the final vowel is short. A circumflex can only appear over a syllable with a long vowel.

jûrĭs lûcĕ mûsă spînă

The circumflex accent is thought to have has a slight up-down tone, the acute a straightforward upwards tone. Final unaccented syllables had a slight falling tone. (This is called the grave accent, but this is not written, it is simply understood to be there.)

These accents were applied by the Romans in imitation of the Greeks, and may have been used when reciting poetry and during orations.

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Comment by Latinum Institute on July 23, 2008 at 4:36am
Introduction to Attic Greek, D. Mastronarde pg 17
Contonation and mora:
The apparently complex 'rules' of Greek accentuation can be understood in terms of a single general principle involving the concepts of contonation and mora. Contonation is the combination of the rise in pitch generally thought of as the accent with the necessary fall or return to standard pitch which follows it. In the case of the acute accent, the contonation includes both the syllable on which the accent is written, and on which the pitch rises and the entire following syllable on which the pitch falls, if any, whether it counts as long or short. In the case of the circumflex accent, the contonation occurs on the one syllable on which the accent is written, for there are both a rise in pitch and a return to standard pitch on that syllable. A mora is a (theoretically assigned) "standard" length of a short vowel. A long vowel or a dipthong occupies (theoretically) a time span equivalent to two morae.
The general principle is that the contonation may be followed by no more than one mora before the end of the word. This principle is in many respects similar to the rules in other languages (e.g.latin) which constrain the position of accent according to the nature of the final syllable of a word." (note the apparent contradiction to Siher)
"the cicumflex accent ^ represents a rise of pitch over the first mora of a long vowel followed by a return to standard pitch over the second mora."
Comment by Legoquego on August 25, 2008 at 1:30pm
I think I should add to what I said eralier about the Estonian language: wherever the stress is, the pitch is raised, and the syllable is very slightly louder than the unstressed syllable. But anything could happen in speech, just as it would have happened in Latin.


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