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The sound of Latin may be secondary for students of medieval law or exotic diseases, but anyone wanting to get to grips with classical Latin is well advised to make the sound of the language as much a priority as the grammar and vocabulary.

To some this may seem a touch artificial, or even pointless. Can there be any knowing how the language sounded? In any case the huge pull of the classics over the past two thousand years has not been Roman voices in the street but the great writings of poets and historians. The gulf between literary style and colloquial chat was as wide in this culture as in any. Rhetorical and poetic conventions in literary composition raised these works above ordinary speech, and this is what we read today.

Thus all the Latin we study today is written down, derived from books or inscriptional stones, words preserved silently over centuries. The speech of the Romans – with the exception of a few insights from plays, poems and stories – has long passed away into the next generation of Romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Latin as a spoken language is dead.

So one might argue. But there's a but. If someone like Cicero spent an evening reading, more than likely he'd have been listening to a reader. Latin, prose as well as poetry, was written to be heard. Almost every classical work was written as a transcript of performance. To make any sort of stab at recovering their experience, we need to try to recreate the sound.

Our efforts are inevitably hit-and-miss, but the hits quickly lead to other hits, and thanks to a considerable accumulation of scholarship we know enough to proceed with some confidence. Especially the verse. For this comes with such a tight set of conventions the instructions are almost written for you. Of course there are uncertainties, arguments and divergence in practice; but then that can be said of a living language too.

It will not take too much application to make this experience successful and pleasurable. Listen to others, study the guides, and practise. Start with just a line or two, then try one or two more. Once you 'get it', you'll be up and away.

George Sharpley 2017


Latin voices - why were there so few female poets in ancient Rome?

Readings from

The Complete Latin Course

Catullus, 5

Vivamus mea Lesbia ...

Horace, Odes

Ode 1.11

Ode 1.19

Odes 1.20

Ovid, Metamorphoses 3

Echo and Narcissus

Actaeon and Diana

(and the dogs ...)

Virgil, Aeneid

The ghost of Creusa

Dido and Aeneas

Aeneas in the underworld

Diana prepares to avenge Camilla

The death of Turnus


Latin language classes, courses, readings, books and films