Speaking like Cicero: the problem with pronunciation

This weekend, the Georgia Junior Classical League held Fall Forum, a 1-day Latin convention originally kicked off to give JCLers across Georgia a taste of State Convention, which has since become a yearly tradition. Given the chance to host a variety of workshops we hadn’t been able to host in the past 2 online years, Anand, the GJCL Secretary, Aran, the GJCL Editor, and I got together and held a workshop where we introduced JCLers to the spoken creative arts contests that both the GJCL and NJCL offer. More so than how we three don’t like to admit the fact that we simply suck at the more academic-oriented tests, we intended to send the message that there are aspects of Latin that aren’t just certamen or translating and deciphering text, but events like Dramatic Interpretation and Latin Oratory that are meant to be lived and acted out. Placing well in these competitions, however, requires a more performative yet equally precise set of criteria involving hand gestures, vocal inflections, and accuracy of pronunciation – the last point which we will be focusing on.

 Group activity acting out Cicero’s Pro Fonteio, 48

This is the NJCL Latin Pronunciation Guide. The thing is, it’s not entirely correct. We were first made aware of this after attending a workshop in Louisiana led by Mr. Kenneth Van Eimeren who teaches Latin at Health Careers High School in Texas. The NJCL claims to base its pronunciation guide on Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina, yet the guide’s omission of aspects such as Quintilian’s “intermediate vowel”, vowel variation, dark and light “L”, and more, exposes its reliance on arbitrary simplifications that don’t really fall neatly into any system of pronunciation that was actually used by the Romans. I don’t mean to get nitty gritty on a competition that, at its core, is meant to foster appreciation and interest in the beauty of spoken Latin, but a lot of it is simply wrong. One thing that Mr. V said that particularly resonated with me was,

If a random Roman from the 1st century turned up at one of our JCL events—Cicero even—and delivered a Latin Oratory, under the current system, we would mark him off for pronunciation and enunciation, almost certainly. That seems wrong to me.

More than that though, strictly subscribing to one system of pronunciation, especially that of the elite and privileged class, doesn’t lend itself well to our efforts to move away from the elitist education systems that made it so hard for many modern students to adopt Latin in the first place. From a linguistic and historical standpoint, one-size-fits-all rubrics are not the way. From a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint, they still are not the way.

Credit: Kenneth Van Eimeren’s Seminar Slides



So, what do we do? From here, we should open up rubrics to rely less on specific rules and leave more up to the judges’ and performers’ individual tendencies, just as you wouldn’t dock an English speaker for points for having a midwestern accent instead of a southern one or vice versa.

By Mr. V’s recommendation, check out these resources for additional learning:

  • Vox Latina by W. Sidney Allen (1965)
  • Social Variation and the Latin Language by J.N. Adams (2013)
  • “On the Evolution of the Short High Vowels of Latin into Romance” by Andrea Calabrese in Romance Linguistics, August 2003
  • Luke Ranieri’s Youtube Channels: Scorpio Martianus, Polymathy

For more reading on diversity, equity, and inclusion, check out

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