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Latin Syllabication and Accent Review

The following post is a synopsis of the rules for syllabication and accent of words in Latin literature.  Students will find this increasingly helpful as they begin to work with oratory and poetry in Latin.  I very much encourage the memorization and recitation of such pieces.  While Latin is predominantly a written language today, it was once crafted to sway minds and move hearts.  We should not deprive students the opportunity to both study and experience the spoken language of masters such as Cicero and Vergil.  This summation is included as an appendix in Latin Alive Book 3 and Book 4.  The rules also appear in books 1 and 2.

Caveat: I am unable to include macra (long marks) on this blog site.  I will make notations of long vowels where important.

Syllabication

The term “syllable” is used to refer to a unit of a word that consists of a single, uninterrupted sound formed by a vowel, diphthong, consonant, or by a consonant-vowel combination. Syllabication is the act of dividing a word in order to reveal its individual syllables. With English this can be tricky because there are often letters that remain silent. However, in Latin there are no completely silent letters, so any given Latin word will have as many syllables as it has vowels or diphthongs. The rules of syllabication indicate that words are to be divided as follows:

1. Between two like consonants:

pu-el-la           ter-ra

2. Between the last of two or more different consonants:

ar-ma      temp-to

3. Between two vowels or a vowel and a diphthong (never divide a diphthong):

Cha-os            proe-li-um

4. Before a single consonant:

me-mo-ri-a     fe-mi-nae

 

Caveat Discipulus: As with most rules, there are sometimes exceptions to the syllabications rules just mentioned. The most common exception occurs with prefixes. A division will always occur between the prefix and the root word. The root word will always divide as if he prefix was never there. Consider the following example:

creo = cre-o                pro-cre-o

Notice how the division in the compound verb occurs between the prefix and the root word. Notice also that the cr is still not divided when the prefix is added.

 

Special Rules:

5. Before a stop + liquid combination, except if it is caused by the addition of the prefix to the word (see above):  pu-blica (but ad-la-tus according to the prefix exception)

stops: b, c, d, g, p, t                liquids: l, r

6. After the letter x.  Though it is technically two consonants, it is indivisible in writing, so we divide after it:

ex-i-ti-um   ex-e-o

7. Before s + stop, if the s is preceded by a consonant:

mon-stro   ad-scrip-tum

 

Each syllable has a characteristic called quantity. The quantity of a syllable is its length—how much time it takes to pronounce or say that syllable. A long syllable has twice the quantity or length of a short syllable. It is easy to tell the quantity of syllables in Latin and it will be important to know how to do so in order to properly accent words. Syllables are long when they have:

1. a long vowel (marked by a macron);

2. a diphthong;

3. a short vowel followed by two consonants or the letters x or z.

The only exception for this two consonant rule is the letter h.  This letter is often reduced to an aspiration, barely audible.

 

Otherwise, syllables are short. The first two rules are said to make a syllable long by nature because the vowel sound is naturally long. The last rule is said to make a syllable long by position, because the length depends on the placement of the vowel within that word. Recognizing the length of a syllable becomes particularly important when reading poetry.

Caveat Discipulus (Let the Student Beware): The quantity of the syllable does not change the length of the vowel. You should still pronounce short vowels according the phonetic rules you have just learned. The quantity of the syllable will affect how you accent the words.

 

Accent

Accent is the vocal emphasis placed on a particular syllable of a word. The accent can only fall on one of the last three syllables of a word. Each one of these syllables has a name. The last syllable is referred to as the ultima, meaning “last” in Latin. The next to last syllable is called the penult (from paene ultima, meaning “almost last”). The syllable third from the end is known as the antepenult (from ante paene ultima, which means “before the almost last”). Which one of these syllables carries the accent depends on the length of the syllables.

 

 

The rules for accent are as follows:

1. In words of two syllables always accent the penult or first syllable: aúc-tor.

2. In words of more than two syllables, accent the penult (next to last syllable) when it is long:

mo-né-mus.

* The e  in monemus is long by nature and should have a macron

3. Otherwise, accent the antepenult (third to last syllable): fé-mi-na.

4. The ultima will never carry the accent unless it is a one-syllable word: nóx.

 

 

 

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