Latin diacritic sign, to consider when learning a new word?


Senior Member

When I learn a new word in Latin, should I learn it in a form:

1) excluding diacritic (pax - peace)


2) including diacritic (pāx - peace)

? (question number one)

I have never seen the diacritic anywhere in a classic text nor on inscriptions below statues in architecture. Do they appear only in dictionaries? (question number two)

? Thank you.
  • Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I don't think everyone will agree on this question, but this is my experience.

    Classical literature is usually printed without a diacritical mark, but the first year textbook I used had them, and my teacher required us to learn them. I think they were helpful for an introductory course in Latin. They helped me recognize the underlying patterns in the conjugations and declensions. They also helped distinguish words that had similar spellings. They also helped scan poetry.

    Once you have mastered the basics, you can move on to classical literature without those markings. At that point, I don't think that the change will present a problem.


    Senior Member
    The diacritic assists learners to know how to pronounce the word, as it marks the vowel length. It also helps with determining which syllable the stress falls on, which case a word may be in (helpful from a learner’s perspective especially) and also when you move onto Latin poetry.

    I’ve often read and been told that the Romans never marked long vowels, but they did. Check out the Wikipedia articles on apices. They weren’t used consistently or by every writer, but they are found in (some) inscriptions and in (some) writings (here’s part of a mid-first century AD handwritten piece with apices marking long vowels throughout the document, although it may take you a little while to get your eye in).


    Senior Member
    Once you have mastered the basics, you can move on to classical literature without those markings. At that point, I don't think that the change will present a problem.
    I don't think Latin vowel lengths count among the basics for speakers of any language, even those that have length as fully independent of stress (Finnish, Hungarian, or the OP's Czech). Nobody can possibly learn all the lengths of all Latin words, if only because of the abnormally long post-mortem history of the language and the amount of Greek borrowings in it. Even just learning the lengths in the basic vocabulary is a big challenge because one cannot at all rely on natural acquisition through listening - 90% of recordings of Latin out there have no inkling of vowel length distinctions, and half of the remaining 10% get them wrong a lot of the time. All fluent speakers of Latin who have otherwise mastered the classical pronunciation regularly come across words with unfamiliar vowel lengths, or even ones that constantly confuse them due to conflicting/incorrect input at an early stage of learning, or interference from their native language.

    Rather, making students move on to reading literature for native speakers before getting to grips with being able to understand, let alone speak or pronounce the language is part and parcel of the outdated teaching methodology which replaces language acquisition and comprehension with decoding by applying overt rules and a dictionary. Memorising vowel lengths isn't expected to lead to consistently correct pronunciation of the vowels, but is only seen as a teaching tool, an abstract diacritical mark for otherwise invisible distinctions. Thus students and teachers alike might consciously learn that the adverb -ē is different from the ablative -e but keep pronouncing them identically (English doesn't allow full short vowels in unstressed open syllables).

    For those learners who are attempting to master the pronunciation of the language, the change to texts with no vowel length marking often presents a pretty massive obstacle, just like the one facing the learner of Russian who is pushed into pronouncing unaccented texts. It was one big reason I refused to read general editions of classical works aside from poetry where lengths are more or less deduceable, and for which the Macronizer website can be used quite successfully. The excellent website Hypotactic even has them manually checked.
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    Senior Member
    As to the OP's question, we have barely any classical-age handwritten fragments in Latin (especially outside Africa) and so cannot judge how often vowel lengths were marked in practice, but it's a fact that they were. Grammarians discuss and sometimes prescribe marking them when there's possibility of confusion otherwise, similar to how standard Russian or Serbo-Croatian orthography doesn't normally mark stress (and in the case of the latter, vowel length), but does so in certain homographs depending on the need and in a few cases quasi-regularly. Their use is common in the Vindolanda Tablets.

    As Stoggler mentions, the Romans mainly used the ápex for this, but for some time and in some areas double vowels were used as well. The long /i:/ was for a long time spelled as <ei> and a special letter was invented for it called 'the long i', whose shape but not necessarily use seems to be directly continued by the modern letter <j>, though originally it extended above the line and not below; the same was often used to mark the consonant /j/.

    In predominantly Greek-speaking areas, the Greek mācron was used instead of the apex (which marked pitch accent in Greek). This use was probably limited to dictionaries and poetic works. Latin written in Greek more or less consistently distinguished /e/ vs /ē/, /o/ vs /ō/, and optionally /i/ vs /ī/ using the different graphemes <ε η>, <ο ω>, <ι ει>, while the short /u/ (but not the long one) could be spelled not only as <ου> but as <ο> and sometimes as <υ> as well.
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