in Language, Literature, Pedagogy

Diacritical Exegesis: a novel approach to reading Latin aloud

It seems that I keep coming back to pronunciation as one of the most important areas for students at all levels of Latin. There are the obvious benefits: it attunes the ear to the unique sounds of the language and helps to reinforce things like vocabulary. But it’s at least as important that students develop an ability to read Latin expressively and to pick up not just its sounds but its rhythms.

The rhythms of the language will do more for students than precision in consonant articulation (e.g., aspirated vs. unaspirated consonants). When students have the ability to read Latin with its natural rhythms it’s easier for them to identify sense units on the fly and much less likely that their reading will fade into an unintelligible jumble of empty syllables. Both in the classroom and when reading alone students should see a marked improvement in their comprehension of texts if vowel quantity and rhythm are either mastered or practiced formally through a pre-reading exercise in which they mark-up their texts not for vocabulary and grammar (as is often done) but for rhythmic cues.

I came across a worksheet I made some time ago and promptly forgot about that uses a system of diacritics to easily help students read Latin with proper attention both to stress accents and vowel quantity. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is something that can be produced just as easily with a word processor as with a pen, and it provides students with visually distinct symbols that supply all of the needed information. Here are the diacritics:

¯ The macron marks long vowels in unaccented syllables.
^ The circumflex marks long vowels within accented syllables.
´ The acute accent marks other accented syllables (i.e., those that do not contain long vowels).

It’s important to note the distinction between long syllables and long vowels, and students should be taught to recognize diphthongs and syllables that are long by position. For the purposes of this exercise, it would be a mistake to equate macrons with long syllables, and equally to mistake macrons for accents. This notation may help to reinforce those distinctions while encouraging pronunciation.

(NB: In the marking-up of verse, the distinction between vowels and syllables is quite different, which raises serious objections to this use of macrons, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I have only the vaguest recollection of putting the text together (so vague, in fact, that I wasn’t sure I should take credit, but I couldn’t find anything like it elsewhere online). Here’s the text I prepared (evidently from a version of Aulus Gellius as adapted by Rose Williams in this pdf on Holidays for Latin Class):

Sāturnâlia Athênīs hílarē támen modéstē agēbâmus. Conveniēbâmus ad cênam múltī Rōmânī quī in Graéciam érant. In órdine cênam dabâmus et post cênam praémium solvéndae quaestiônis ponēbâmus. Praémium érat lîbrum scriptôris vel Latînum vel Graécum et corônam e laúro pléxam. Tótidem rês hóspes quaerêbat quot hóminēs erâmus. Rém et lócum dîcere sórs dâbat. Quaestiônēs ígitur solûtae corônam et praémium recipiêbant.

People will doubtless continue to debate the minutiae of accentuation, but this could work as a step toward better reading if applied, as mentioned previously, as a pre-reading exercise to be abandoned once the rhythms are acquired. I would not advocate for its adoption as a regular feature of handouts, but a tool toward the acquisition of a necessary skill.