Latin and English – again


I’ve just been listening to “In Our Time” on BBC Radio 4 (the latest one available as a podcast, 22 April 2010), and was struck yet again how inconsistent English speakers are in their treatment of Latin names. The discussion was about Roman satirists, and was between Melvyn Bragg (of course) and three professors who may be expected to have a thorough understanding of Latin: Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at Cambridge University), Denis Feeney (Professor of Classics and Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton University) and Duncan Kennedy (Professor of Latin Literature and the Theory of Criticism at the University of Bristol).

Nevertheless, their pronunciation was inconsistent. All three pronounced Maecenas as /maɪˈsiːnæs/ (with occasional reduction of the final vowel to schwa), which is neither traditional English (/miːˈsiːnæs/) nor an adaptation of Classical Latin (/maɪˈkeɪnæs/). One of the two men astonishingly spoke of the battle of /faɪˈlɪpaɪ/, which bears no relation to either the Classical Latin pronunciation or the traditional anglicisation. On the other hand, all the participants in the programme spoke of Lucilius as /lʊˈsaɪljəs/, which includes the traditional English treatment of the (long) stressed vowel.

There is obviously total confusion in the minds of native English speakers over the way in which they should pronounce Latin names, even those that have been used in English for many years – and even among the Classics community. My view is that the reformed pronunciation introduced into schools in the mid-nineteenth century, and the influence of the Roman Catholic church in propagating the Italianate pronunciation, are the reasons for this.

I wonder if the same confusion exists in other European languages?

As a footnote, for anyone interested, the whole series of “In Our Time” is now available on the BBC website, going back to October 1998.


  1. Irritating, isn’t it? But what could the BBC Pronunciation unit have done about it? The melancholy news is that John Wells’s Longman Pronunciation Dictionary has maɪ ˈsiːn æs miː-, -əs ǁ -əs, and maɪˈsiːnæs is confirmed by the sound file on the dictionary CD for BrE (which sounds as if it is John’s own voice), but the AmE sounds like mᵻˈsiːnəs, which seems to reflect your miːˈsiːnæs. I think the first iː of that is a little over-specified for the traditional English, but agree with the –æs, so I would write (and still say) miˈsiːnæs, and no doubt you are as glad as I am to know that at least one American speaker is keeping the flag flying.

  2. Michael – I don’t think the Pronunciation Unit could have done anything about it, and as the three eminent professors were not BBC employees in any sense, I don’t think its members should even have attempted, and I’m sure they didn’t. I wasn’t really surprised about Maecenas (and I agree- /-iː-/ was perhaps a little over the top), but what brought me up short was the pronunciation /faɪˈlɪpaɪ/ for Philippi. I see that John Wells has /fɪˈlɪpaɪ/ as his first pronunciation, and /ˈfɪlɪpaɪ/ as the second, so by the ‘long before a single consonant, short before two or more’, rule, I suppose the initial -i- might be lengthened, but it still strikes me as odd, especially as both the boy’s name Philip and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (stressed, true enough, on the second syllable) only ever have /ɪ/ in the first syllable. The Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation has /ˈfɪlɪpaɪ/ in first place.

  3. I did mean “But what could the BBC Pronunciation unit have done about it?” as a rhetorical question, and what is more, though you could hardly have known this, I was thinking of the one you led, thus making it even more of a rhetorical question. ‘Fraid I wouldn’t say the present arrangements attain to the status of a Pronunciation Unit. Or even a Pronounciation Unit!

  4. An eminent Radio 3 Controller once said “We have a Pronunciation Adviser, not a Pronunciation Commissar”. He was referring to me, and presumably to some recommendation that the Unit had made under my leadership, that he didn’t agree with. His staff announcers were under strict instructions from the then Presentation Editor (Cormac Rigby) to follow our advice, and Cormac listened, on “snoop tapes” (whenever they opened their microphone, a recording of their words was started, as much for their protection against malicioius accusations from the public as anything else), to every word they said, sending comments when he thought it necessary.
    Everyone in the Pronunciation Unit, from G M (“Elizabeth”) Miller onwards, has been accused at some point of saying ‘pronounciation’, but we have all strenuously denied it!

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