How do I know where to put the stress on a Latin word?
This is a question I am frequently asked from my students, and it is worth an answer.
Indeed, pronouncing Latin (and every other language) properly is something we should aim to, and – as far as I am concerned – something that gives a very good first impression to the people we are talking (or reading) to. Moreover, it is something that is not so problematic in Latin. Then, why not try?
In my experience as a teacher, I have found that even beginner students tend to read instinctively well most of the Latin words they encounter for the first time. That’s usually true regardless from their origin, even if there is a number of French speakers (or speakers of languages which systematically accentuate the last or the first syllable) who can find hard to HEAR where the word stress is, not speaking about actually spelling the word themselves (here is a song which is a good illustration of the average French speaker pronouncing Latin). However, if they have the chance to listen to a teacher pronouncing Latin correctly, everyone will progressively get used to telling where the accent is and to read properly.
That’s why I think that listening to a good teacher (or to podcasts, videos and recordings in which attention is put on the proper accentuating of words) and trying to imitate him or her is one of the easiest and most effective way to learn how to read – if you think about it, that is exactly how we learn how to pronounce words of our mother tongues as children, and that’s also how we usually learn modern languages.
Anyways, along with listening and relying on our instinct, it could be useful to know that there are some simple rules (or tendencies, to say it better) that can help us putting the stress in the right place when we are not sure about how a word should be read.
Rule #1: in the vast majority of Latin words, the stress is to be placed on either the penultimate, or the antepenultimate syllable. It cannot occur earlier than the antepenultimate (that is to say the third-to-last) syllable, and it usually cannot occur on the last one, either (even if there are a few exceptions of short words which are accentuated on the last one).
That being said, how do we determine whether we need to stress the penultimate or the antepenultimate?
As you maybe know already, every Latin vowel is either long (which we can mark as in “ā”), or short (as in “ă”). Vowel length is something we generally do not care about while speaking Latin (there are some Latin speakers who do, however), but we know that “classical” Romans made an actual difference between long and short vowels. And this is something we should know, at least, because vowel quantity is at the basis of Latin composition and poetry.
That leads us to our second rule.
Rule #2: when the penultimate syllable is long, we stress the penultimate; if it is short, we stress the antepenultimate instead, regardless of its quantity.
Now, the next problem is: how do we know whether the penultimate syllable of a given word is long or short? Well, there are some clues (or “rules”) that can help us in this case, too.
To keep it simple and beginner-friendly, though, the moment when we really have a doubt, we can just look up the word into a dictionary that marks long vowels. Moreover, if you are using books of the LLPSI series, as well as many other didactic books (and also some critical editions), you will find that they have already done the work for you. In LLPSI, for instance, in the positions where it can be useful to know their quantity, the long vowels are always marked with a macron (as in “ā”), whereas the short ones do not bear any sign. Therefore, when you read reperit, medicum, aegrōtat and margarīta you can know immediately which syllable is to be stressed.
So keep these simple rules in mind, listen to good speakers, and knowing how to accentuate Latin words will become easier and easier with practice.
Is accentuating difficult for you? Share your thoughts in the comments to this post!
However…don’t stress too much about stresses! They are important, sure, but it is still a hundred times better to try reading and speaking Latin with the wrong accentuation than not to do it at all for fear of getting wrong…
P. S.: The proper pronunciation of the words I mentioned is respectively réperit, médicum, aegròtat and margarìta.