A Latin Pronunciation Guide for Numismatists

by Scott T. Rottinghaus
scottrottinghaus@hotmail.com

Pronunciation of Latin presents a great problem for many numismatists.  With fewer people having studied Latin in school over the past several decades, and many numismatists lacking the opportunity to hear these comparatively obscure terms spoken, some people become so afraid of pronouncing a word wrong that they avoid pronouncing it at all.  Hopefully this pronunciation guide will help to solve the problem by providing some universal rules for Latin pronunciation as well as a glossary of some common words in Roman numismatics to serve as examples. 

Unfortunately, there are several different ways to pronounce Latin.  This is to be expected from a language that has been used in different cultures for different purposes for well over two millennia.  The pronunciations discussed here are the reconstructed "classical" pronunciations.  These are used by classicists today and are probably very close to the way Romans talked during the late Republic and early Empire.  There is also "ecclesiastical Latin," which is pronounced much like Italian (this won't be addressed further here, as it normally is not used in a numismatic context).  Finally we must not forget the common modern pronunciations that develop as Latin words are used today.  These vary significantly from country to country, but they are unfortunately the ones you will hear most when you go to coin shows.  Here I will give the rules and pronunciations for classical Latin, which can be used anywhere, particularly among academics.  However, where the modern English pronunciation differs from the classical pronunciation, I have written a note in italics about how the word is normally pronounced by an English speaker.

The rules and sounds set out here apply to every Latin word.  Unlike English, Latin is pronounced the way it looks, and there are no "silent" letters.  The pronunciation of consonants is always predictable.  Vowels, on the other hand, can be "long" or "short."  Long and short Latin vowels are pronounced differently than long and short English vowels (see below).  Unfortunately, it is usually not clear by looking at a word which vowels will be long and which will be short.  Therefore, in the glossary I have stated which vowels are long and short for each word listed.  Although it is not technically correct, most people just pronounce all vowels long.  However, it is imperative to know which vowels are long and which are short in order to determine where the stress, or accent, belongs in a word.  Although the Romans probably did not stress words quite as we do (their theory was that it took twice as long to pronounce a "heavy" syllable as it took to pronounce a "light" one-this probably providing most of the difference between "long" and "short" vowels), it is still convenient for us to use some rules to apply our modern stress to Latin.

Rules for stress are as follows:

1.  A one-syllable word is stressed.
2.  The stress is on the first syllable in a two-syllable word.
3.  For words with more than two syllables, the stress is on the penultimate syllable (second from the end) if that syllable is "heavy."
      a.  A syllable is heavy if it contains a long vowel.
     
b.  A syllable is heavy if it has a short vowel followed by two consonants or a double consonant (x or z).
      c.  A syllable is heavy if it contains a diphthong.
      d.  A syllable is light if it contains a short vowel followed by one consonant or no consonants. 
4.  The stress is on the antepenultimate syllable (third from the end) otherwise.

Vowels  (You are unlikely to be faulted if you pronounce everything long):

a (short)
a (long)
e (short) 
e (long)
i (short)
i (long)
o (short)
o (long)
u (short)
u (long)
y

as in English “idea,” “aha”
as in English “father,” “par”
as in English “pet”
as in English “they,” “pay”
as in English “pit,” “dip”
as in English “peal,” “deep”
as in English “pot,” “orb,” “off” 
as in English “clover” or French “beau”

as in English “put”
as in English “rude,” “pool”
as French “u” or German umlaut “u.”  Most American numismatists and even classicists pronounce this “ee,” like a long Latin “i,” as it’s pronounced in ecclesiastical Latin.

Diphthongs (These vowels do not always form diphthongs):

ae 
au
ei
eu
oe
ui  

as in English “high,” “ice”
as in English “how”
as in English “day”  
as combined Latin e+u, “ayoo” 
as in English “boy”
as in English “squeak”

Consonants are Pronounced as in English with the Following Exceptions:

b
c
ch
g
i (consonant)
ph
r
s
t
th
v (consonant)

as “p” before “s” or “t,” otherwise as in English
always hard, as “k”
aspirated, as in “pack-horse”
always hard, as “g” in “got.”
as “y” in English, “yellow.”
aspirated, as in “up hill”
as Scottish “rolled” r 
always as in “sing,” not as in “roses”
always as in “tin,” with no “h” sound
aspirated, as in “pot-house”
as “w” 
always as “ks” 

NB:  Latin lacks the English letter “w.” It also lacks “j” and “v,” which we often use to represent the consonantal forms of “i” and “u.”  Inscriptions will use the characters “I” and “V.” 

Glossary

Latin vowel sounds are indicated as follows in the glossary:

short a:  a
long a: ah 
short e:  e
long e:  ay
short i:  i
long i:  ee
short o:  o
long o:  oh 

 

short u:  u
long u:  oo
ae:  ae 
au:  ow
ei:  ay 
eu:  eu  
oe:  oe 
ui:  ui

 Denominations

Uncia

UN-ki-a (all short Latin vowels)

Sextans

SEX-tahns (the “a” is long in Latin)

Quadrans

QUAD-rahns (the second “a” is long in Latin)

Triens

TRI-ayns (the “e” is long in Latin)

Semis

SAY-mis (the “e” is long in Latin)

As

AS (the “a” is short in Latin).  Americans often pronounce this "az."

Dupondius

du-PON-di-us (all short vowels)

Sestertius

says-TER-ti-us (the first “e” is long).  Americans usually say "ses-TER-she-us."

Quinarius

queen-AHR-i-us (the first “i” and the “a” are long).  Americans usually say “quin-AYR-i-us,” with a long English “a”  in the second syllable.

Denarius

dayn-AHR-i-us (the “e” and “a” are long).  Americans usually say “den-AYR-i-us,” with a long English “a” in the second syllable.

Aureus

OW-re-us (short vowels) 

Solidus

SOL-i-dus (short vowels)

Nummus

NUM-mus (short vowels) 

Metals

Aes  
Argentum
Aurum 

as English “ice.”  Some Americans say the English word “ace.”
ar-GEN-tum (short vowels, hard g)  
OW-rum (short vowels) 

Praenomina (almost always abbreviated):

A=Aulus
A or Ap=Appius
C=Gaius  
Cn=Gnaeus
D=Decimus
L=Lucius
M=Marcus
Man or Mn=Manius
N=Numerius
P or Pub=Publius
Q=Quintus
S or Ser=Servius

Sx or Sex=Sextus
S or Sp=Spurius

T=Titus  
Ti or Tib=Tiberius  

OW-lus (short vowels)
AP-pi-us (short vowels)
GUY-us (short vowels)
GNAE-us (“ae” as in English “ice.”)
DEK-i-mus (short vowels)
LOO-ki-us (long “u”)  It’s “LOO-shee-us” in English.
MAR-kus (short vowels)
MAHN-i-us (long “a”)
nu-MER-i-us (short vowels)
PUB-li-us (short vowels)
QUIN-tus (short vowels)
SER-wi-us (short vowels)  Pronounce the “v” the English way if you’re not feeling Roman.  
SEX-tus (short vowels)
SPUR-i-us (short vowels)
TI-tus (short vowels).  Americans pronounce this with a long English “i”:  “TIE-tus.”
ti-BER-i-us (short vowels).
 Americans make the first “i” and the “e” long here too:  “tie-BEER-ee-us.” 

The Twelve Caesars

Iulius Caesar

YOO-li-us KAE-sar  (the first “u” is long; the “ae” is like the “i” in the English “ice”).  Of course Americans say JOO-lee-us SEE-zar

Augustus

ow-GUS-tus (all short vowels).  Americans make it start with the same sound as the month “August.”

Tiberius

ti-BER-i-us (all short vowels).  Americans use a long English “i” and a long “e” in the first two syllables:  tie-BEER-ee-us.  

Caligula

ca-li-gu-la (all short vowels).  Americans make the short Latin “u” into a long American “u.”

Claudius

CLOW-di-us (all short vowels).  Again, Americans make that “au” sound like the month “August.”

Nero

NAY-roh (both vowels long).  Americans pronounce it with long English vowels:  NEE-roh. 

Galba

GAL-ba (short vowels)

Otho

OTH-oh (the second “o” is long).  Remember to pronounce the “th” the Latin way; Americans don’t.

Vitellius

wi-TELL-i-us (all short vowels).  Americans pronounce the “V” the English way and follow it with a long English “i”

Vespasianus

wes-pas-i-AHN-us (the second “a” is long).  It’s spelled “Vespasian” in English and pronounced ves-PAYSH-i-an.

Titus

TI-tus (both short vowels).  Americans make the “i” long:  “TIE-tus.”

Domitianus

do-mi-ti-AHN-us (the “a” is long).  Americans spell it “Domitian” and say “do-MISH-i-an.”

Other Commonly Mispronounced Emperors

Antoninus Pius

an-to-NEE-nus PI-us (the “i” in “Antoninus” is long).  Americans pronounce both with long English “i’s.”  

Lucius Verus

LOO-ki-us WAY-rus (the first “u” in “Lucius” and the “e” in “Verus” are long).  Americans say “LOO-shi-us VE-rus.”

Commodus

COM-mod-us (all short)

Septimius Severus

sep-TI-mi-us se-WAY-rus (the “e” in “Severus” is long).  Americans naturally pronounce the “v” as in English.

Some Imperial Titles

Tribunicia Potestas

tri-boo-NI-ki-a po-TES-tahs (the “u” in “tribunicia” and the “a” in “potestas” are long)

Imperator

im-per-AH-tor (the “a” is long)

Consul

KOHN-sul (the “o” is long) 

Pontifex Maximus

PON-ti-fex MAX-i-mus (all short)

Pater Patriae

PAT-er PAT-ri-ae (all short; “ae” pronounced as in English “ice”)

Important Mints

Alexandria

al-eks-an-DREE-a (long “i”).  In English, this is pronounced “al-ex-AN-dree-a,” with the accent on a different syllable than in Latin, which is somewhat unusual.

Carthago

kar-THAH-goh (second “a” and “o” long; remember how to pronounce “th”)

Cyzicus

KOO-zi-kus or KEE-zi-kus (the former preferred, where “oo” is pronounced as German umlaut “u”; all short vowels).  Americans use the latter pronunciation, sometimes with a soft “c.”

Londinium

lon-DEE-ni-um (first “i” long)

Lugdunum

lug-DOO-num (first “u” long)

Mediolanum

med-i-o-LAH-num (long “a”)

Ostia

OS-ti-a (all short)

Roma

ROH-ma (long “o”)

Ticinum

Tee-CEE-num (both long “i’s”)

Treveri

TRAY-we-ree (first “e” and “i” long).  English speakers would say the “v” the English way.

Miscellaneous

Aegis
Aquila
Biga 
Caduceus
Cippus
Cornucopia
Lituus
Modius
Officina
Palladium
Patera
Pileus
Quadriga
Simpulum
Tessera
Vexillum  

AE-gis (short “i”; “ae” like “i” in “ice”).  Pronounce it “EE-jis” in English.
A-qui-la (all short)
BEE-ga (long “i”)
ka-DOO-ke-us (long “u”)  The third syllable is “see” in English.  
KIP-pus (short vowels)
kor-nu-KOH-pi-a (long “o”)  
LIT-u-us (short vowels)
MO-di-us (short vowels)  
of-fi-KEE-na (second “i” long)  
pal-LA-di-um (all short)  Americans pronounce this like the metal.  
PA-te-ra (all short)  
PEE-le-us (first “i” long)  
quad-REE-ga (long “i”)  
SIM-pu-lum (short vowels)  
TES-se-ra (short vowels)  
vex-IL-lum (short vowels)