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.