Society for Pure English Tract 4 by John Sargeaunt


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Page 1

Even so early as the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine
tells us that the vowel-quantities, which it was necessary to learn
in order to write verse correctly, were not observed in speech. The
Latin-speaking schoolboy had to learn them in much the same fashion as
did the English schoolboy of the nineteenth century.

It is interesting to observe that, while the English scholars of
the tenth century pronounced their Latin in the manner which their
ancestors had learned from the continental missionaries, the tradition
of the ancient vowel-quantities still survived (to some extent at
least) among their British neighbours, whose knowledge of Latin was an
inheritance from the days of Roman rule. On this point the following

English schoolboys about A.D. 1000) is instructive:--

Miror ualde quare multi corripiunt sillabas in prosa quae in
metro breues sunt, cum prosa absoluta sit a lege metri; sicut
pronuntiant _pater_ brittonice et _malus_ et similia, quae in
metro habentur breues. Mihi tamen uidetur melius inuocare Deum
Patrem honorifice producta sillaba quam brittonice corripere,
quia nec Deus arti grammaticae subiciendus est.

effect. For after the Norman Conquest English boys learned their Latin
from teachers whose ordinary language was French. For a time, they
were not usually taught to write or read English, but only French
and Latin; so that the Englishmen who attempted to write their native
language did so in a phonetic orthography on a French basis. The
higher classes in England, all through the thirteenth century, had two
native languages, English and French.

In the grammar schools, the Latin lessons were given in French; it was
not till the middle of the fourteenth century that a bold educational
reformer, John Cornwall, could venture to make English the vehicle
of instruction. In reading Latin, the rhythmically-determined
vowel-quantities of post-classical times were used; and the Roman
letters were pronounced, first as they were in French, and afterwards
as in English, but in the fourteenth century this made little

In Chaucer's time, the other nations of Europe, no less than England,
pronounced Latin after the fashion of their own vernaculars. When,
subsequently, the phonetic values of the letters in the vernacular
gradually changed, the Latin pronunciation altered likewise. Hence, in
the end, the pronunciation of Latin has become different in different
countries. A scholar born in Italy has great difficulty in following
a Frenchman speaking Latin. He has greater difficulty in understanding
an Englishman's Latin, because in English the changes in the sounds
of the letters have been greater than in any other language. Every
vowel-letter has several sounds, and the normal long sound of every
vowel-letter has no resemblance whatever to its normal short sound. As
in England the pronunciation of Latin developed insensibly along with
that of the native tongue, it eventually became so peculiar that by
comparison the 'continental pronunciation' may be regarded as uniform.

It is sometimes imagined that the modern English way of pronouncing
Latin was a deliberate invention of the Protestant reformers. For this
view there is no foundation in fact. It may be conceded that English
ecclesiastics and scholars who had frequent occasion to converse in
Latin with Italians would learn to pronounce it in the Italian way;
and no doubt the Reformation must have operated to arrest the growing
tendency to the Italianization of English Latin. But there is no
evidence that before the Reformation the un-English pronunciation was
taught in the schools. The grammar-school pronunciation of the early
nineteenth century was the lineal descendant of the grammar-school
pronunciation of the fourteenth century.

This traditional system of pronunciation is now rapidly becoming
obsolete, and for very good reasons. But it is the basis of the
pronunciation of the many classical derivatives in English; and
therefore it is highly important that we should understand precisely
what it was before it began to be sophisticated (as in our own early
days) by sporadic and inconsistent attempts to restore the classical
quantities. In the following paper Mr. Sargeaunt describes, with a
minuteness not before attempted, the genuine English tradition of
Latin pronunciation, and points out its significance as a factor in
the development of modern English.


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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 25th Feb 2020, 5:40