Book Nav

14. Latin, the language of the ancient Romans, was properly, as its name implies, the language spoken in the plain of Latium, lying south of the Tiber, which was the first territory occupied and governed by the Romans. It is a descendant of an early form of speech commonly called Indo-European (called by some Indo-Germanic), from which are also descended most of the important languages now in use in Europe, including among others English, German, the Slavic and the Celtic languages, as well as some now or formerly spoken in Asia, such as Sanskrit, Persian, Armenian. Greek likewise belongs to the same family. The Romance (or Romanic) languages, of which the most important are Italian, French, Provençal, Spanish, Portuguese, and Roumanian, are modern descendants of spoken Latin.

The earliest known forms of Latin are preserved in a few inscriptions. These increase in number as we approach the time when the language began to be used in literature; that is, about 250 B.C. It is the comparatively stable language of the classical period (80 B.C. - 14 A.D.) that is ordinarily meant when we speak of Latin.

15. Among the main features in the changes of Latin from the earliest stages of the language as we know it up to the forms of classical Latin may be mentioned the following:



Vowel Changes

  1. The old diphthong ai became the classical ae (aedīlis for old aidīlis), old oi became oe or ū (ūnus for old oinos), and old ou became ū (dūco for old doucō).
  2. In compound verbs the vowel a of the simple verb often appears as i or e and ae similarly appears as ī.

    faciō, factum BUT cōnficiō, cōnfectum
    caedō BUT occīdō

    cecīdī, perfect of caedō
    (cf. cadō, occidō; cecidī, perfect of cadō).


    Note— This change is commonly ascribed to an accentuation on the first syllable, which seems to have been the rule in Latin before the rule given above (see § 12) became established. The original Indo-European accent, however, was not limited by either of these principles; it was probably consisted of a change in pitch, and not merely in a more forcible utterance of the accented syllable

  3. Two vowels coming together are often contracted.

    cōgō for †coagō
    prōmō for †proemō
    nīl for †nihil
    dēbeō for †dēhibeō



    Consonant Changes

  4. An old s regularly became between two vowels (rhotacism), passing first through the sound of (English) z.

    eram (cf. est)
    generis, genitive of genus1

    Note— Final s sometimes became r by analogy; as honor (older honōs), from the analogy of honōris.

  5. A dental (t, d) often became s, especially when standing next to t, d, or s.

    equestris for †equettris
    cāsus for †cadtus (cf.  6., below)

  6. Many instances of assimilation, partial or complete, are found.

    cessī for †cedsī
    summus for †supmus
    scrīptus for †scrībtus (b unvoicing to p before the voiceless t)

    Assimilation is also found in compound verbs (see § 16).

    Dissimilation, the opposite kind of change, prevented in some cases the repetition of the same sound in successive syllables.

    palīlia (from Palēs);
    merīdiēs for medīdiēs,
    nātūrālis with suffix -lis (after r)

    populāris with -āris (after l)

  7. Final s was in early Latin not always pronounced, as in  plēnu(s) fidēī.

    Note— Traces of this pronunciation existed in Cicero's time. He speaks of the omission of final s before a word beginning with a consonant as "countrified" (subrūsticum).

  8. A final consonant often disappears.

    virgō for †virgon
    lac for †lact
    cor for †cord

  9. G, c and h unite with a following s to form x.

    rēx for †rēgs
    dux for †ducs
    trāxī for †trahsī2

  10. G and h before t became c.

    rēctum for †rēgtum
    āctum for †agtum
    trāctum for †trahtum3

  11. Between m and s or m and t, a is often developed.

    sūmpsī for †sūmsī
    ēmptum for †ēmtum

16. In compounds with prepositions the final consonant in the preposition was often assimilated to the following consonant, but usage varied considerably.

  • There is good authority for many complete or partial assimilations:  ad, acc-, agg-, app-, att-, adc-, adg-, etc.
  • Before a labial consonant we find com- (comb-, comp-, comm-), but con- is the form before c, d, f, g, consonantal i, q, s, t, and consonantal v; we find conl- or coll-, conr- or corr-; cō- in cōnectō, cōnīveōcōnītor, cōnūbium.
  • In usually changes to im- before b, m.
  • Ob and sub may assimilate b to a following c, f, g, or p; before s and t the pronunciation of prepositions ending in b doubtless had p; surr-, summ-, occur for subr-, subm-.
  • The inseparable amb- loses b before a consonant.
  • Circum often loses its m before i.
  • The s of dis becomes r before a vowel and is assimilated to a following f; sometimes this prefix appears as dī-.
  • Instead of ex we find ef- before f (also ecf-).
  • The d of red and sēd is generally lost before a consonant. The preposition is better left unchanged in most other cases.



Vowel Variations

17. The parent language showed great variation in the vowel sounds of kindred words.4

a. This variation is often called by the German name Ablaut. It has left considerable traces in the forms of Latin words, appearing sometimes as a difference of quantity in the same vowel (as, uūeē), sometimes as a difference in the vowel itself (as, eoiae).5

tegō  I covertoga  a robe
pendō  I weigh, pondus  weight
fidēs  faithfīdus faithfulfoedus  a treaty
miser  wretchedmaestus  sad
dare  to givedōnum  a gift
regō  I rulerēx  a king
dux  a leader, dūcō (for older doucō)  I lead

Compare English drive, drove (drave), driven; bind, bound, band; sing, sang, sung; etc.



1. A similar change can be seen in English: were (cf. was), lorn (cf. lose).

2. Really for †traghsī. The h of trahō represents an older palatal sound (see § 19).

3. Really for †traghtum. These are cases of partial assimilation (cf. Consonant Changes, 2, above).

4. This variation was not without regularity, but was confined within definite limits.

5. In Greek, however, it is more extensively preserved.

Suggested Citation

Meagan Ayer, Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-947822-04-7.