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This article is intended for use as a student handout. Please feel free to reproduce it.


Evan Millner, London, August 22nd 2007.

On Syllables:

Poetry in Latin is quantitative. This means that it depends for its effect on the length of syllables relative to one another, and only secondarily, if at all, on actual word stress. By contrast, English poetry depends for its effect almost exclusively on word stress.

There are two types of syllables in Latin, those that end in a vowel, and those that do not. A “third group” may be one or the other, depending on the need of the poet, and these either-or syllables are called ‘common’.

Those that end in a vowel are called open syllables.

Those that end in a consonant are called closed syllables.

How are such syllables formed?

The Romans, when speaking, ‘opened’ a syllable if the vowel was followed by only one consonant. This consonant was allowed to detach itself from the vowel, and join the following syllable. The result was an open syllable: [1]

i.e. t-er -ter

This also could also occur if a vowel were followed by a mute in combination with l or r (l and r belong to a class of consonants called liquids).

The mutes

V, B, P, F (labials)

G, C, K, Qu (gutturals)

D, T (linguals)

A syllable that ends in a vowel, and that has a short vowel in it, is going to be shorter than an otherwise identical syllable that ends in a consonant, by the simple virtue that it has fewer letters.

pă is shorter than păt

It is then important to pronounce the syllable with the correct vowel length. If the vowel length is wrong, then the syllable is mangled from a long to a short, and vice versa.

This would be sufficient to destroy a poetical reading, or indeed the intended sound of a passage in prose that relies for its effect on the syllabic structure of the sentence or turn of phrase.

So much for open syllables.

As mentioned above, two syllables with short vowels that differ only in that one has a consonant at the end, and the other does not, share a fundamental, and blindingly evident difference: one is physically short, and the other is, by comparison, physically long. (i.e. it has more letters, so as an object, it is longer than if it had two letters.). As a consequence, the syllable also sounds longer.

pă versus păr [2]

It is vital that the entirety of the syllable is fully pronounced. If the r on par were not pronounced distinctly, the long syllable could easily come to sound like a short one. This is a reason why readers of Restored Classical pronunciation take care to trill their r’s.

When does a syllable become long when reading Latin?

An open syllable automatically becomes long when followed by two consonants. (Except a mute + liquid, in which case this is optional.) [3]

How does it get longer?

The first of the following consonants sticks to it. The open syllable then becomes long, simply because it now has more letters in it – it is physically longer, and it must be pronounced fully.

tem/pe/stā/ti/bus this gives us: tem/pes/tā/ti/bus

note: pe is short, and open, pes is physically longer, and closed. Because it has more letters in it, it takes longer to say.

a/spér/sus a/spérsus as/pér/sus

This syllable is now called ‘long by position’. One way to understand this is that you have positioned an extra consonant against it, and so it has become longer.

Here are some more examples:

Before (short)

After (long by position)

s t i /r p ĭ s

s t i r/ p ĭ s

d i s/ c é /s s ĭ t

d i s/ c é s /s ĭ t

m ŏ/ d é /s t ŭ s

m ŏ/ d é s/ t ŭ s

ē /d u/c t ŭ s

ē /d ú c/ t ŭ s

Double consonants – double trouble

It is not a mere fancy when we are told that the Romans pronounced their double consonants as two distinct sounds. They did, but they did so because each letter of the double consonant ended up in its own syllable, according to the rule we have just discussed.

a/ppa/rā/bat is how we would pronounce it if we did not know any better. However, this is what happens to the double consonant pp:

a/ppa/rā/bat which becomes ap/pa/rā/bat

When reading Latin, getting the syllabic structure correct is therefore vitally important, otherwise it is impossible to read Latin verse with any degree of authenticity. You need to nurse these habits when reading prose as well, otherwise the transition to reading verse will be a hard and arduous one.

The Third syllable type – Common Syllables.

What is a common syllable?

Common syllables only occur when a short vowel is followed by a mute + a liquid (l or r).

In the ordinary course of things, a mute+liquid behaves like two Siamese twins joined together, and functions as though it were a unit “joined at the hip”.

The poet has the option of performing an operation, and separating the two. Once they are separated, they behave like any two consonants. One of them moves, in the same way we saw above, and closes (and thereby physically lengthens) the syllable immediately in front of the two consonants. The first consonant from the separated mute-liquid moves to the syllable in front of it.

pătrem pă/trem

If tr were a NORMAL consonant cluster, we would expect the t to move to the first syllable, like this:

/trem resulting in păt/rem

This rule would be the same rule as that we saw above, for a short vowel followed by two consonants, and a poet can chose to apply it to a mute + liquid combination if he wishes to.

However, because the consonant cluster is a mute-liquid combination, if he does not perform the operation on the twinned mute-liquid cluster, then things stay as they are, and this results in


How do we know which of the two the poet has chosen?

We need to read the verse aloud that contains a word with a common syllable. It should be apparent which way the poet has divided the word, depending on whether he needs the common syllable to be physically long or short to complete the rhythmic patterning of long and short syllables. Only one reading should sound right. This is a matter of developing your ear. It never will develop if you are not always careful about quantity when reading both prose and poetry.


A source of much confusion is the use of the macron and breve to mark out syllable quantity. This may be fine for a speaker with native level fluency, (and to be frank, who speaks Latin with that level of fluency?) who has an instinctive knowledge of the true lengths of the vowels the words would have in ordinary conversation. For a modern second language Latin speaker, this system of marking the syllable long by position with a macron above its vowel spells disaster, and adds unnecessary complications.

While it is true that Latin versification depends on syllable quantity, the underlying vowel quantities of the words remain unchanged.

Syllables with short vowels are either physically long, or physically short.

Syllables with long vowels, are needless to say, always long, as their vowels are long, even if the syllable is physically a short one: pā is long, and so is pāb

Such a vowel that is naturally long, is called ‘long by nature’. Even in a physically short syllable, (one that that has fewer letters) it is still long.

However, with syllables that have short vowels,

pă is ‘physically’ short, and păd is ‘physically’ long. Placing a macron above the a, pād to show it is physically long, invites the reader to mispronounce the syllable and lengthen the vowel, when it is the syllable, not the vowel, that is long. Even worse, it leads people to think that ‘long by position’ means that the vowel is lengthened. This is a not uncommon error, but it is a very serious one.

The use of the macron above the vowel of a syllable that is long by position, gives rise to much confusion, as the same notation is also used for vowel length.

It is not the case that a syllable that is long by position, i.e. one containing a short vowel that is followed by two consonants, has its vowel lengthened. Marking it with a macron only gives rise to confusion, especially in a student reader who does not have an instinctive appreciation for vowel length, but who rather relies on the macrons. Macrons should be used to mark long vowels, and long vowels only, and not be used to serve another purpose.

To avoid this difficulty, some educators have proposed a super- macron, which would be extended over the entire syllable. The vowel length notations would remaining in place below it – however, standard computer word processing software does not allow for this, and nor does html coding.


In order to keep the actual vowel quantities marked, another method needs to be found to show syllable quality that does not interfere with the true vowel markings. This method needs to make use of standard word processing tools that are also available on standard web editing packages. It also needs to be easy to apply when marking up a printed text for reading aloud, or, for that matter, for writing out with pen and ink.

A simple and elegant solution is proposed – that the macron for a long syllable should be placed underneath the entire lengthened syllable cluster, as an underline. The original vowel quantities can still remain marked in their places above the line, as per usual.

a m av i

Marking short or light syllables might also need an intervention that will not interfere with the usual markings; However, it it not really necessary to mark the short syllables, if the long ones are marked. Should, for educational reasons, or otherwise for reasons of clarity be necessary to distinguish them in a positive manner, it is proposed that short syllables be italicised, rendering them visually light, with all the letters in the cluster being italicised. legĕrĕ

The advantages:

This system has the advantage that a syllable that is long by position will not lose its actual vowel length markings, which would be retained in the superscript:

b ô b ŭ s

c ŏ n c ĭ d o

Another advantage, is the ease with which a printed text can be marked up for recital. This system is also easy to apply using handwriting.

It could be argued that italicising the light syllables might be excessive – and indeed, is largely unnecessary if the subscript macron is used, as the correct vowel quantities are then clearly visible in their correct locations above.


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.

rĭs cĕ spî

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.

Evan Millner


August 22 2007

[1] The resulting ‘ter’syllable on the end is closed. You’ve heard it said that the Romans trilled their r’s. They certainly sounded them one way or another, otherwise,’ter’, if pronounced with an English ‘r’, would be an open syllable as well.

Advice: Trill those r’s.

[2] While counting letters is a simple and efficient way to get the point across, it may be misleading if you look into the matter more carefully, for it begs the question: ‘Is “sti” longer than “i”, since it has more letters?’ In fact, only the vowel and what follows it is relevant. Technically speaking, the beginning part of any syllable is irrelevant for Latin syllable quantity.

[3] If we take the word, say, carmen, the proper syllabification is car-men. Then it is not the case that the first syllable is “followed by two consonants”, as it is not an open syllable. The vowel of the first syllable, for the syllable “car” is followed by only one consonant.

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Comment by Laura Gibbs on August 25, 2007 at 12:46pm
Thanks for this, Evan! I think it is also useful to share with students the crisis already faced by non-native Latin speakers in the ancient world who wanted to write poetry as well as the crisis faced by Latin-speaking poets in later antiquity who wanted to imitate classical verse even when the Latin they spoke no longer naturally had vowel length (after all, the Romance languages all lost this distinction - vowels have various qualities in the modern Romance languages, but for all that they have varying qualities, prosodic quantity is not one of them).

So, the wanna-be poets would look to classical poetry to try to learn what the vowel lengths were! Poor guys: they could not just look something up in a dictionary as we can. They faced the same problem we face (not having a clue about vowel length), and unlike us they did not have dictionaries with the vowel lengths all nicely supplied for them.

So, they would collect lines of poetry which would give them clues about vowel length. Ingenious!

I always let my students know about this so they can feel FORTUNATE to be able to look up vowel lengths in the dictionary. Just imagine if they had to figure out for themselves the lengths of vowels by poring over lines and lines and lines of Latin poetry looking for clues about vowel length in the meter.


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