To Macron or Not to Macron

Before I began teaching Latin and writing my programs, I surveyed a number of high school Latin teachers in public and private schools to determine the common practice regarding pronunciation and macrons. The macron is the straight, horizontal line above some vowels indicating that they are long. None of the teachers I spoke to required their students to reproduce the macrons in their written work, and most teachers quite frankly didn’t pay much attention to them or to the distinction between long and short vowels at all. I live in Louisville, KY, and although I realize that other areas may be different, I think that the practices among Latin teachers here are probably not uncommon.

There are two reasons we don’t include macrons in our programs. Macrons in most texts are too dark and create a distracting clutter on a Latin page, especially a page of connected text. I began learning Latin with the Jenney text, which had dark macrons that were a real impediment to me, and was pleasantly surprised when I switched to the Henle text, where the macrons are so light I forget they are there. The common fonts we use in our texts have macrons that are too dark.

The second reason we don’t include macrons is because of their limited usefulness. When I try to apply the pronunciation rules regarding long and short vowels to actual words, I come up with pronunciations that are not what anybody actually says. For instance, the short sound of a is uh. The conjugation of amo then would be:

UH moh UH mahs UH muht

The pronunciation of Italia would be EE-tuh-lee-ah. I could give many other examples.

In the pronunciation guide on page one of the Henle grammar manual, immediately following a chart of the long and short vowel sounds, Fr. Henle comments:

Very often in practice the difference between the long and short vowels is ignored, all of them being given the quality of long vowels.

Notice that he says “in practice.” Dr. Charles Bennett and other Latin scholars have confirmed this fact, and I have found this to be true as well. The reality is that the pronunciation of a vowel in a Latin word is determined as much by the consonants around it and whether the syllable is accented as it is by whether it is long or short.  A short vowel in an accented syllable is pronounced longish and a long vowel in an unaccented syllable is shorter sounding.  The most important piece of information in pronouncing a Latin word is the accented syllable, and that is what we provide in Memoria Press programs.

So why are macrons included in most texts? Because it is a tradition of the restored (classical) pronunciation movement that has been influential since the late 19th century and, more importantly, because the rules for accentuation (which syllable to accent) are determined by long and short vowels and also needed later for poetry scansion. Since our programs are written for students as young as 2nd grade and for teachers and parents without a Latin background, I decided to simplify pronunciation by teaching only one sound for each vowel and also by marking the accented syllable for the student, a practice which is, in fact, the norm in Christian Latin texts.

So how do you know which syllable to accent in Memoria Press Latin programs? In Latin, the accent is always on one of two syllables, the next to the last (penult) or the second to the last (antepenult). The accent is never on the last syllable.

adóro (penult)
ámbulo (antepenult)

In Latina Christiana and the Forms Series, words of two syllables are unmarked, since the accent must be on the penult. All words of three or more syllables have an accent mark, only if the accent is on the antepenult. In other words, the penult is the default accented syllable and is unmarked unless the accent is on the antepenult, in which case it will be marked. If you are confused by all this, you can see why I decided to simplify pronunciation and not teach the rules of accentuation based on long and short vowels.

Because all accented syllables in our programs are marked in all paradigms, vocabulary lists, and in the key, you don’t need to learn the rules for accentuation unless you just want to. I do not recommend teaching accentuation based on long and short vowels to students at this level. By saying the words correctly over a period of years, students will develop an ear for the correct accented syllable.

Note: In recitations it is common to accent the last syllable since the students are learning the inflected endings and how to spell them. Again this is acceptable and traditional for beginning students. When saying vocabulary, sayings, and exercises aloud, however, it is recommended that you try to observe the correct accent.

There is one more question regarding macrons and pronunciation. Will the lack of macrons and/or the choice of Christian pronunciation be a handicap for students who go on to AP Vergil and college Latin? The answer is a resounding NO. I can say from experience that the policies we have used at Memoria Press and Highlands Latin School regarding pronunciation have in no way been a detriment to our students, many of whom have scored high on AP Vergil, gone on to take Latin in college, and majored in the classics. My former students report that their professors in college are unconcerned about pronunciation and macrons and that our programs were in no way a disadvantage. Quite the contrary—the state of Latin instruction in this country is so low that our students are way ahead of their peers in every way.

There is a lot to learn in Latin, and I made the decision long ago that I didn’t want an emphasis on the details of a “restored” classical pronunciation that no one has an ear for. It would be an impediment to learning Latin. I based my decision on my own experience and also on Dr. Charles Bennett’s advice in his book, The Teaching of Latin and Greek, written at the turn of the century.

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