Why not speak like a Roman?

Here’s a Latin question I get once a week…

“Why are there two ways to pronounce the same language?”

It is often followed by this question:

“Why not pronounce Latin the way the ancient Romans pronounced Latin?”

Well… There’s the trouble. 

No one knows for certain how the ancient Romans pronounced Latin. 

Why not?

No one knows because the Romans left not one audio recording!  Not one! 

They left their language, roads, buildings, legends and legal system.  They even left their most famous resort town, Pompeii. 

The Roman Empire lasted over 1,000 years.  And yet, over the span of 1,000 years, no one had time to sit down with a tape recorder to capture the pronunciation of Latin! 

Personally, I find that hard to believe. 

(By the way… if you are reading this, and you are less than thirty years old, this is a tape recorder.)

Since the Romans left no audio recordings, we don’t know how Latin was pronounced.  We can guess, but we don’t know for sure.

I do know one thing.  I have personally wasted too much time looking for the original  pronunciation.  I have also wasted too much time telling people again and again that…

No one knows for sure how ancient Latin sounded

More students will come.  More students will ask.  I am ready.  I will throw fruit at them.  My desk is full of bananas.  Bring it on.

But, You still have a problem.  Which pronunciation will you chose?

It’s sort of a funny question.  

No one ever asks when you are studying German… “Which pronunciation will you use?”   Nor will they ask this if you are learning French, or Russian, or Dutch, or even English!

I suppose the question could come up in a Spanish course.  “Will you use continental Spanish pronunciation, or South American pronunciation?” 

That is a justified question.

Yet, I rarely hear it in Spanish classes, Spanish podcasts, or Spanish conversations.  It doesn’t seem to matter much.  Spanish speakers seem perfectly capable of understanding each other regardless of the pronunciation they choose.

What about English?

English pronunciation, like Spanish pronunciation, varies. 

I lived for in England for years.  I was born there.  In fact, I may be an English citizen as well as an American citizen.  Still trying to find out.  Paperwork.  Sigh.

George Bernard Shaw once stated that England and America were two countries divided by a common language.  The English spoken in England is different from the English spoken in America.  Still, the English understand Americans and Americans understand the English.  Usually.

Okay.  You get it.  Modern languages sometimes vary in pronunciation.  And… almost no one panics.  On the contrary, people seem to enjoy pronunciation differences. 

“I like your accent”, is far more common than, “You have a lousy accent.  You need to do something about that.”

Then, we come to Latin. 

Latin is a language mostly read, rarely spoken.  And yet, when we get to Latin pronunciation… people freak the freak out.

I have some advice for you.  Relax.  Imitate these guys.  And, for crying out loud… relax.