Pronunciation of Romance (Phonology)

This is a rough sketch of the pronunciation of Vulgar Latin, which subsequently divided into distinct Romance pronunciation systems. Remarks about the significant sound changes that differentiate the modern languages from Latin are included.

Basic Pronunciation of Vulgar Latin

Vulgar Latin & Common Romance Pronunciation
Letter IPA pronunciation English equivalent Vulgar Latin example
a /a/ aisle *casa
e (ĕ / è) /ɛ/ let *bene
e (ē / é) /e/ they *potere
e (unstressed) /ə/ about (some of Romance)
i /i/ thing *si
i (before or after a vowel) /j/ yearn *iuvene
o (ŏ / ò) /ɔ/ law (British) *possu
o (ō / ó) /o/ sow *sole
u /u/ rune *tu
u (before or after a vowel) /w/ wear *suave
b, d, f, l, m, n, s, v, x (as in English)
p /p/ space *patre
t /t/ stay *tale
c + a/o/u /k/ escape *casa
c + e/i /kj/ (Sardinian /k/) cute *celu
g + a/o/u /g/ gate *gustu
g + e/i /gj/ (Sardinian /g/) argue *gente
h (silent) hour *homine
li + vowel /ʎ/ million *muliere
n + c/g /ŋ/ ring *lingua
gn /ŋn/ sing now *magnu
qu /kw/ squid *quando
gu /gw/ (/b/ in some languages) language *lingua
r /r/ (trilled) *arte

Vowels

Latin has five basic vowels, which explains the existence of five letters for vowels in the Roman alphabet.

Basic Latin Vowels
vowel IPA similar English sound
a /a/ aisle
e /e/ they
i /i/ sing
o /o/ tow
u /u/ rue

The letters i and u can also spell the consonants /j/ and /w/ before or after another vowel.

Classical Latin has a long vowel contrasting with each of the five short vowels above: ā ē ī ō ū: esse to be versus ēsse to eat. These are held longer than their short counterparts.

Sardinian reduces the ten long-short vowels to just the five cardinal vowels. Many other Romance languages still maintain a difference between ē versus e and ō versus o. Romance languages aside from Sardinian also treat short i like e.

Latin & Romance Vowels
Latin vowel Continental Romance IPA Sardinian IPA
a /a/ /a/
ā /a/ /a/
e /ɛ/ /e/
ē /e/ /e/
i /e/ /i/
ī /i/ /i/
o /ɔ/ /o/
ō /o/ /o/
u /u/ /u/
ū /u/ /u/

Diphthongs

Latin speakers also pronounced diphthongs, including the very common au (pronounced /aw/) and ae (pronounced /ai/). As the centuries wore on, these diphthongs were shortened towards /e/ and /o/.

Latin & Romance Diphthongs
Latin dipthong Latin example Portuguese example Italian example Sardinian example
ae *quaestione questão questione chestione
au *paucu pouco poco pagu

Diphthongs sometimes appear for /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ in stressed syllables.

Latin Open Vowel > Romance Diphthongs
Latin vowel Latin example Portuguese example Spanish example Italian example French example
ɛ *vɛnis vens vienes vieni viens
ɔ *mɔrit morre muere muore meurt

Nasal Vowels

French, Catalan, Portuguese and other languages have nasalized vowels before n or m and another consonant, or before n or m at the end of a word: Vulgar Latin *manu > *man becomes French main (pronounced /mɛ̃/), and *abante turns into French avant (pronounced /avɑ̃/). In some languages the nasal is dropped: Catalan (pronounced /ma/). Portuguese and Campidanese have a history of intervocalic nasalization and nasal-dropping: Vulgar Latin *luna becomes Old Portuguese lũa and then Modern Portuguese lua.

Consonants

At the beginning of words and after another consonant, Latin consonants remain somewhat stable across Romance.

The Latin consonant /h/ is lost in Romance: Classical Latin hōra /hoːra/ becomes Vulgar Latin *ora, Spanish /oɾa/, French /œʁ/, Romansh /ura/. Some languages keep the historical h in spelling: Spanish hora versus Romansh ura.

Voiceless /s/ turns to voiced /z/ between vowels, but not in Spanish or Romanian: Italian casa /kaza/ versus Romanian casă /kasə/.

Double consonants (geminates) are retained in Italy (where they are still held long) but realized as a single consonant elsewhere: Latin *flamma becomes Italian /fjamma/ but French /flam/, Spanish /jama/.

Consonant clusters are frequently altered, assimilated or simplified: Vulgar Latin *factu (with /kt/) but Italian fatto, Old Spanish fecho /fetʃo/, Galician feito and Romanian fapt. Initial clusters pl /pl/ and cl /kl/ provide clear examples of variation across the family: Vulgar Latin *plovet > French pleut, Catalan plou versus Italian piove, Portuguese chove, Spanish llueve, Sardinian proet.

Palatalization

The palatal consonant /j/ — a “y” sound written i or j in Latin — altered the pronunciation of consonants that it followed. Also, the vowels i and e came to alter the pronunciation of a preceding c /k/ or g /g/ outside of Sardinia. Lastly, the vowel a altered the way a preceding c or g was pronounced in Switzerland and France. All of these changes involve moving the tongue closer to the palate (roof of the mouth), a process called palatalization.

The consonant /j/ tends to turn into an affricate or a fricative: *iustu /justu/ > Italian giusto /dʒusto/, Sardinian zustu /dzustu/, Romanian just /ʒust/, Spanish justo /xusto/.

Consonants followed by /j/ get palatalized in all of Romance. The outcome of palatalized stops often contains /ts/ or /tʃ/ or their voiced counterparts (/dz/ and /dʒ/): Latin *gratia /gratja/ becomes Italian grazia /grattsia/ and *diurnu /djurnu/ gives Italian giorno /dʒorno/. Western languages simplify these affricates to /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/: *gratia also becomes Catalan gràcia /gɾasiə/ and *diurnu is the source of French jour /ʒuʁ/. Sometimes the /j/ that originally triggered the palatalization disappears: Portuguese graça /gɾasɐ/, French grâce /gʁas/.

The sounds /k/ and /g/ turn palatal before /e/ and /i/ in almost all of Romance: Latin */fakemus/ becomes Portuguese /fazemus/, Old Spanish /fatsemos/, Spanish /asemos/ and Romanian /faem/. This parallels the double-pronunciation of c and g in English. The clear exception is Sardinia, where /k/ and /g/ remain velar: Sardinian /fakimus/ or /fagimus/.

Piazza del Colosseo in Rome, Italy

Sign for the piazza del Colosseo ("plaza of the Colosseum") in Rome. The nouns piazza /pjattsa/ and Colosseo /kolosseo/ both contain geminate consonants.

The consonants c and g are palatalized to /tʃ/ (French /ʃ/) and /dʒ/ (French /ʒ/) before the vowel a in much of Swiss and French Romance: *caru becomes French cher /ʃεʁ/, Romansh char /tɕar/ and *gamba becomes French jambe /ʒɑ̃b/.

Lenition

To the north and west of Central Italy, stop consonants are weakened between vowels - they become voiced stops in Portuguese, voiced fricatives in Spanish and are lost altogether in French. The next table demonstrates lenition of consonants between vowels in Western Romance.

Romance Lenition between Vowels
consonant Vulgar Latin Portuguese Spanish French Italian
p *supre/*supra /sobri/ /soβre/ /syr/ /sopra/
t *kontatu /kõtadu/ /kontaðo/ /kõte/ /kontato/
k *akwa /agwa/ /aɣwa/ /o/ /akːwa/
features: voiceless stop voiced stop voiced fricative deleted (not lenited)

Syllables

Basic Romance syllables begin with a consonant or vowel and end in a vowel or a consonant—(C)V(C). Consonant clusters have CC or, infrequently, CCC(C): Sardinian istimat /is.ti.mat/, Catalan blocs /blɔks/, French fenêtre /fnεtʁ/, Romanian câți /kɨts/. CV or CVC syllables are extremely common: Italian pericolo /pe.ri.ko.lo/, Spanish ves /bes/, Romanian până /pɨ.nə/, French décidèrent /de.si.dεʁ/. The vowel nucleus may be filled by diphthongs or nasal vowels: Occitan pauc /pawk/, Romanian foarte /fwar.te/, French prendre /pʁɑ̃dʁ/.

Stress Accent

The second-to-last (penultimate) syllable or the third-to-last (antepenultimate) syllable of words carries a stress accent in Latin: *amare /aˈma.re/ to love versus *populu /ˈpo.pu.lu/ people. Syllable length originally determined stress placement in Latin: long penults were stressed. Single-syllable words are either stressed or, if they are clitics, unstressed: Vulgar Latin *per oc /per ˈo/ however (stressed pronoun *oc and unstressed preposition *per).

Romance languages treat stressed vowels differently than unstressed ones, often allowing a wider variety of vowels and dipthongs in stressed syllables. For example, Catalan has a ɛ e i ɔ o u in stressed syllables but only i ə u in unstressed syllables. French, Catalan, Occitan, Romansch and Romanian drop final unstressed vowels except final -a, which may weaken to ə.

Pão de Açúcar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The distinctive Pão de Açúcar ("Sugarloaf") rock formation in Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese word açúcar /a'su.kaχ/ has three syllables and gets stressed on the penultimate syllable.

Stress regularly falls on the penult when a word ends in a vowel or one of the Western plural endings (/n/ and /s/): Italian amare [aˈmaː.re] to love, Spanish decides [deˈsi.ðes] you decide, Catalan decideixen [də.siˈðɛ.ʃən] they decide, Romansh chasas [ˈtɕa.zas] houses. Many languages also retain words stressed on the third-to-last syllable: Spanish próspero [ˈpɾos.pe.ɾo], Italian repubblica [reˈpub.bli.ka]. However, the Romance languages of France force antepenultimate stress onto the penultimate syllable: Vulgar Latin *prospera /ˈprospera/ versus Occitan prospèra [pruˈspɛrɔ].

Elision of Unstressed Syllables

Romance languages preserve stressed syllables, while unstressed syllables are subject to elision. Languages see the loss of final unstressed vowels or even whole syllables at the end of a word: Vulgar Latin *veritate /veriˈtate/ truth becomes Sardinian veritade but Spanish verdad, Italian verità, French verité. Final vowel elision is especially prevalent in France, Catalonia, Switzerland and Romania: Vulgar Latin *arte /ˈar.te/ art becomes French art [aʁ], Romansh art [art] but Italian arte [ˈar.te], Brazilian Portuguese arte [ˈaχ.tʃi].

In words that have lost their endings, a former penultimate stress now falls on the final syllable: Vulgar Latin *etate /eˈtate/ age versus Spanish edad [eˈðað], Latin cantāvit /kanˈtaːwit/ he/she sang versus Romanian cântă [kɨnˈtə]. This final stress is the norm in French, which has lost the final syllables of Vulgar Latin: *prosperu /ˈprosperu/ prosperous versus French prospère [pʁɔˈspɛʁ], *republica /reˈpublika/ republic versus république [ʁepyˈblik].

Languages may also lose unstressed syllables in the middle of a word: Latin populum /ˈpopulũ/ people > *poplu > Spanish pueblo. Combined with the loss of final syllables, this change pushes Romance towards consistent penultimate or ultimate stress: Vulgar Latin *populu people > *poplu > French peuple [pøpl], Vulgar Latin *monumentu /monuˈmentu/ memorial > Romanian mormînt [morˈmɨnt] grave, Vulgar Latin *anima /ˈanima/ soul > *anma > Spanish alma. Italian, Corsican and Sardinian regularly keep unstressed syllables: Vulgar Latin *populu > Italian popolo and *anima > anima but *domina /ˈdomina/ lady > *domna > Italian donna.

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