Stress in Latin Syllables

Diphthongs and Triphthongs and More

Lines of the "Aeneid" in original Latin

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Knowing the way Latin words are divided into syllables will help you to pronounce and translate poetry. There are a few basic points you need to know, but remember that there are always exceptions. Virgil's "Aeneid" is the perfect place to start with Latin examples. Here is the first line of the epic poem when each word is separated internally by syllable with a hyphen:

ár-ma vi-rúm-que -no Tró-jae qui prí-mus ab ó-ris

Syllable Guideline

The number of syllables equals the number of vowels and/or diphthongs pronounced separately. For example, Caesar contains one vowel and one diphthong, so there are two syllables: Cae-sar. There are no silent vowels in Latin.

Exercise

  • Q. How many syllables are there in the English word "alphabet"?
    A. There are three in "alphabet." and they center around the vowels in the word.
  • Q. How many syllables are there in the English word "same"?
    A. There are two vowels in "same," but one is silent, so there is only one syllable.
  • Q. How many syllables are there in the Latin example from Virgil above?
    A. 15

Vowels

Check for vowels. The first word árma has two vowels and two syllables. The second word virúmque has three vowels and three syllables. There is no fourth vowel, because the U after Q acts as it does in English, and doesn't count. The third word cáno has two vowels and two syllables. The fourth word Trójae has three vowels, but only two are pronounced separately, since the AE, a diphthong, is pronounced together. You can analyze the last three words (qui prí/mus ab ó/ris) on your own.

Diphthongs and Consonants

As in English, Latin syllables divide between consonants (in mitto, the syllables are divided between the Ts: mit-to). Without consonants in a row, the division happens after a vowel or diphthong and before the next consonant. There are six Latin diphthongs:

  • AE (earlier, AI): Tro-jae ("Troy")
  • AU: Au-rum ("gold")
  • EI: dein-de ("then")
  • EU: Eu-ro-pa ("Europe")
  • OE: proe-li-um ("battle")
  • UI (rare): cui ("who")

Stress

Syllables and stresses are related, and both are necessary for a reasonable pronunciation of Latin. Generally, stress would normally be placed on the second to last (penultimate) syllable if it is long, and on the one before it (the antepenultimate) if not. If you look up amicus in a Latin dictionary, there will be a long mark or macron on the I. That means the I is long, so the syllable is stressed. If there is a diphthong in the penultimate syllable or if it is followed by two consonants, it is generally counted as long and therefore stressed. In the opening example, the ictus is marked with an accent mark, which shows the stress.

ár-ma vi-rúm-que -no Tró-jae qui prí-mus ab ó-ris

Resources and Further Reading

  • Diphthongs.” The Official Wheelock's Latin Series Website, Harper Collins, 7 Jan. 2010.