In the introduction to his book, A New Latin Grammar, (which is now an old Latin grammar), Charles Bennet defines the Restored pronunciation.
“The following pronunciation (often called Roman) is substantially that employed by the Romans at the height of their civilization; i.e., roughly, from 50 B.C. to 50 A.D.”
Okay. Got that? The “Restored pronunciation” is a restoration of Latin spoken for a period of about one hundred years. Most academics would readily admit that the restored pronunciation is based on the writings of a small period of time.
The Latin language goes back a long way. The earliest inscriptions date from the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. To be safe, let’s say some form of Latin was spoken in Italy by 700 B.C.
Latin, as a spoken, academic language slowly died out in the modern age. To be safe again, we will assume Latin had fallen from grace by the late 1700’s. (For a moment, we are ignoring the fact that Latin is still spoken in the Roman Catholic Church. We are also ignoring the fact that the Roman Catholic church has spoken Latin since the days of the Roman Empire).
From 700 B.C. to 1800 A.D. is a span of 2,500 years. Latin has a long history.
Compare the life of Latin to the life of English.
It’s probably safe to say that the history of English begins with the Germanic invasions of England around 450 A.D. Just to be certain, though, let’s say English begins around 500 A.D. From 500 A.D. to today is a bit more than 1,500 years.
English is a much younger language. And, English has changed. A lot.
Were you to go back to the year 500 A.D. you would not understand a word of English. Here are some lines from the epic poem Beowulf. Some scholars believe these lines were written sometime in the 700’s. Remember, this is English.
Gewat ða neosian, syþðan niht becom,
hean huses, hu hit Hring-Dene
æfter beorþege gebun hæfdon.
Fand þa ðær inne æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble; sorge ne cuðon,
wonsceaft wera. Wiht unhælo,
Few of us can read that. Let’s move forward 500 years. Now we are in the year 1,000. Chances are, we still would not understand a word of English. Don’t believe me? Here are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
Let’s move forward another 500 years. Now we are in the year 1,500 A.D. You should understand English now. It may sound old to you, but you understand it. Shakespeare wrote in the 1500‘s. You have likely read Romeo and Juliet. Here are the opening lines:
“Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Whose mis-adventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
A little more than one hundred years later, we find some of the first English spoken on American shores. The Mayflower Compact, was written in 1620 A.D.
In ye name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by ye Grace of God, of great Britaine, Franc, & Yreland, King, defender of ye Faith, &c.
Haveing undertaken, for ye Glorie of God, and advancements of ye Christian faith, and the honour of our King & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northern parts of Virginia; Doe by these presents, solemnly & mutualy, in ye presence of God, and one of another; covenant & combine ourselves together into a Civill body politick; for our better ordering, & preservation & furtherance of ye ends aforesaid; and by vertue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just & equal Lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In witnes wherof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cap-Codd ye 11 of November, in ye year of ye raigne of our soveraigne Lord King James, of England, France, & Yreland, ye eighteenth, and of Scotland ye fiftie fourth, Ano: Dom. 1620.
What would you think of me if I insisted that the English from William Shakespeare to the time of the Mayflower compact was the only correct English?
What if I further insisted that all English speakers should pronounce English as English was pronounced during those one hundred years?
You would think I was strange. You would think I was a grammar maven, a perfectionist, or a purist. And, you would be right.
Latin teachers and scholars who insist that we pronounce Latin only as it was pronounced from the years 50 B.C. to 50 A.D. are doing exactly that.