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How do you scan a line of Latin poetry?

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Question: How do you scan a line of Latin poetry?
Answer: To learn to scan a line of Latin poetry, it helps to know the meter and to use a text that shows the macrons. Let's assume you have a text of the beginning of The Aeneid with macrons. Since it is an ancient epic, The Aeneid is in dactylic hexameters, which is a meter the AP exams typically expect you to know.

Find the Long Syllables

  1. First, you mark all syllables that are long by nature.

    Long Vowels

    Those syllables with macrons over the vowels are long by nature. For simplicity, a circumflex will be used for a macron here. (Macrons are usually long marks ‾ over the vowels, but you use the long mark ‾ over the syllable's vowel to mark the syllable as long when you scan your lines.)

    Tip: For an AP exam, the help offered by the macron will probably not be available, so when you use a Latin dictionary to look up a word, make note of the long vowels.

    Other syllables that are long by nature are those with diphthongs, ae, au, ei, eu, oe, and ui.

    3 Consecutive Vowels

    If there are 3 vowels in a row:

    • and there is a macron over one of the vowels, it is not part of the diphthong; thus, diêî, which has two macrons, has no diphthongs. Diêî has 3 syllables: di, ê, and î.
    • and the second and third vowels form a diphthong, the preceding vowel is short. (This 1st vowel is also short if there are 2 vowels that do not form a diphthong.)
  2. Next, find and mark as long all the syllables that are long by position.

    Double Consonants

    • Those syllables in which the vowel is followed by two consonants (one or both of which may be in the next syllable) are long by position.
    • A syllable that ends in X or (sometimes) Z is long by position because X or (sometimes) Z counts as a double consonant.

      Extra Linguistic Information: The 2 consonant sounds are [k] and [s] for X and [d] and [z] for Z.

    • However, ch, ph, and th do not count as double consonants. They are the equivalent of the Greek letters Chi, Phi, and Theta.
    • For qu and sometimes gu, the u is really a glide [w] sound rather than a vowel, but it doesn't make the q or g into a double consonant.
    • When the second consonant is an l or an r, the syllable may or may not be long by position. When the l or r is the first consonant, it counts towards position.

      Extra Linguistic Information: The consonants [l] and [r] are called liquids and are more sonorant (closer to vowels) than stop consonants [p] [t] and [k]. Glides are even more sonorant.

    • When a word ends in a vowel or a vowel followed by an m and the first letter of the next word is a vowel or the letter "h", the syllable ending in a vowel or an "m" elides with the next syllable, so you don't mark it separately. You may put a line through it.

      Extra Linguistic Information: The [h] counts as aspiration or rough breathing in Greek, rather than a consonant.

Scan a Line of Latin

Let's look at an actual line of Latin:

Arma virumque canô, Trôiae quî prîmus ab ôrîs

Can you find the 7 syllables that are long by nature? There are 6 macrons and 1 diphthong. Mark them all as long. Here they are bolded; syllables are separated from each other:
Ar-ma vi-rum-que ca-nô, Trô-iae quî prî-mus ab ô-rîs
Notice that in Trôiae there is a diphthong, a macron, and an "i" in between.

More Information: This intervocalic "i" acts as a consonant (j), rather than a vowel.

How many syllables are long by position?

There are only 2:

  1. Ar-ma
    The two consonants are r and m.
  2. vi-rum-que
    the two consonants are m and q.

Here is the line with all the long syllables noted:

Ar-ma vi-rum-que ca-, Trô-iae quî prî-mus ab ô-rîs

Mark According to the Known Meter

Since you already know this is an epic and in the meter called dactylic hexameter, you know you should have 6 feet (hexa-) of dactyls. Dactyl is a long syllable followed by two shorts, which is exactly what you have at the start of the line:
  1. Ar-ma vi-

    You may put short marks over the 2 short syllables. (If you aren't bolding the long syllables, you should mark the shorts, perhaps with a υ, and mark the longs with a long mark ‾ over them: ‾υυ.) This is the first foot. You should put a line (|) after it to mark the foot's end.

    The next and all succeeding feet begin with a long syllable as well. It looks as though the second foot is as simple as the first:

  2. rum-que ca-

    The second foot is just like the first. No problem so far, but then look what comes next. It's all long syllables:

    , Trô-iae quî prî

    Have no fear. There is an easy solution here. One long syllable is the equivalent of 2 shorts. (Mind you, you can't use two shorts for the start of a dactyl.) Therefore, a dactyl can be long, short, short, or long, long and that's what we've got. The long, long syllable is called a spondee, so technically, you should say that a spondee can substitute for a dactyl.

  3. , Trô
  4. iae quî

    and then prî becomes the long syllable in a regular dactyl:

  5. prî-mus ab

    We just need one more syllable to make the 6 dactyls of a line of dactylic hexameter. What we have left is the same pattern we saw for the 3rd and 4th feet, two longs:

  6. ô-rîs

    One extra bonus is that it doesn't matter whether the final syllable is long or short. The final syllable is an anceps. You can mark the anceps with an x.

    Tip: This customary ‾ x final foot makes it possible to work backwards from the last two syllables, if the passage is tricky.

You have now scanned a line of dactylic hexameter:
Ar-ma vi-|rum-que ca-|, Trô-|iae quî |prî-mus ab| ô-rîs

‾υυ | ‾υυ | ‾ ‾ | ‾ ‾ |‾υυ |‾x

Line With Elision

The third line of the first book of The Aeneid offers examples of elision twice in succession. If you are speaking the lines, you don't pronounce the italicized elided parts. Here, the syllable with the ictus is marked with an acute accent and the long syllables are bolded, as above:
-to-ra | múl-tum il-| le ét ter-| rís jac-| -tus et| ál-to

‾υυ | ‾ ‾ | ‾ ‾ | ‾ ‾ |‾υυ |‾x

Syllables Read: li-to-ra-mul-til-let-ter-ris-jac-ta-tus-et-al-to

Please email me if I have made an error here.

Greek and Latin Poetry Meter FAQ Index:

References:

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