Around the time we started speaking modern English -- the time of Shakespeare -- English underwent a dramatic change known as the Great Vowel Shift that was partly responsible for our odd, unintuitive English spelling.
Prior to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, English speakers pronounced the vowels about the same as other speakers, and not too differently from the way the Romans would have pronounced Latin. That's probably how English speakers in, say, Chaucer's time, would have pronounced their vowels.
The Great Vowel Shift affected only the long (or "tense") vowels. The short vowels were not affected. This is the general process, here used to explain the pronunciation of Latin to English-speakers. It is not intended to be an adequate linguistic analysis of the GVS.
Orthographically, long vowels in English are often marked
- by being repeated (e.g. "feet", "feel," "tooth") or
- by having an "e" at the end of the word that, our teachers tell us, make the preceding vowel long (e.g., "like", "came", "home").
Vowels are pronounced in different areas of the mouth. If you hold your chin while going through the vowel sounds, you'll notice your chin rises and falls. When your chin is up, you're pronouncing high vowels and when you're chin is as far down as it goes in vowel pronunciation, you're pronouncing an "a", the low vowel. Vowels are often pronounced more in the front or back of your mouth.
When the Great Vowel Shift took place, the vowels rose upward, pushing the next higher vowel into the slot above. The vowels on top had no higher place to go and so became diphthongs. The front vowels were one chain pushing upwards, and the back vowels were another. What was written as an "e" was pronounced like a modern long "a" before the shift. When it moved up it came to be pronounced like a modern long "e" or a French or Roman "i". An old "i" became a diphthong [aj] as in "high". "O" became "u" as in the word "moon", which must have previously been pronounced something like our word "moan."
High vowels: /i/ /u/
Mid vowels: /e/ /o/
Low vowel: /a/
Back vowels: /u/ /o/
Front vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long a/-->/long e/-->/long i/--/aj/
Back vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long o/ -->/long u/ -->/aw/
So, if you see the letter "i" in a Latin word, remember it's not the Romans who pronounced the vowels oddly. We do -- now, and thanks to the GVS. A Latin "i" is pronounced as our "i" used to be.
Also see these articles on words and word derivations:
- Latin Words in English I
English has lots of words of Latin origin. Some of these words are changed to make them more like other English words -- mostly by changing the ending (e.g., 'office' from the Latin officium), but other Latin words are kept intact in English. Of these words, there are some that remain unfamiliar and are generally italicized to show that they are foreign, but there are others that are used with nothing to set them apart as imported from Latin. Here are some such words and abbreviations.
- Latin Words in English II
- On Translating Latin Into English
Whether you want to translate a short English phrase into Latin or a Latin phrase into English, you can not just plug the words into a dictionary and expect an accurate result. You can't with most modern languages, but the lack of a one-to-one correspondence is even greater for Latin and English.
- Latin Religious Words in English
If you want to say that the prospects are bleak, you could say "it doesn't augur well." Augur is used as a verb in this English sentence, with no particular religious connotation. In ancient Rome, an augur was a religious figure who observed natural phenomena, like the presence and location to left or right of birds, to determine whether the prospects were good or bad for a proposed venture. Find out about more such words.
Index of Quick Tips on Latin Verbs
- Latin Supine - About the Latin Supine
- Latin Verbs - Deponent Verbs
- Latin Verbs - Endings
- Latin Verbs - First Conjugation
- Latin Verbs - Frequentative
- Latin Verbs - Impersonal Verbs
- Latin Verbs - Infinitives
- Latin Verbs - Internal Thematic Vowel
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Do
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Edo
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Eo
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Fero
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Nolo
- Latin Verbs - Irregular Verb Volo
- Latin Verbs - Person and Number
- Latin Verbs - Prepositions in Verbs in Latin
- Latin Verbs - Semi-Deponent Verbs
- Latin Verbs - Sequence of Tenses in Indirect Discourse
- Latin Words - Where Do You Add on Endings?
- Passive Periphrastic