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When I learned Latin we were taught classical pronunciation. When it came to the letter "v" we were taught to pronounce it as /w/. It was also explained that many people (my parents, for example) had learned the ecclesiastical pronunciation in which the letter "v" is pronounced /v/ the same as it is in English.

It would probably helped if in all the texts we used did not use both characters ''u" and "v" to represent the same classical character. I never understood that there was no voiced labiodental fricative /v/ in classical Latin. I was always confused as to why Roman engravings always used "v" in place of "u."

When I later came to the realization that both English characters represented one Latin character I wondered why "Veni. Vidi. Vici." was not spelled "Ueni. Uidi. Uici." in the textbook as it should have been.

At some point the double "v" came to be used to differentiate between the consonant form of the Latin "v" and its vowel form. The consonant form, the voiced labiovelar approximant /w/ and the vowel form, the close back rounded vowel /u/ seem like similar enough phonemes to my ears that I can understand why they are the same character in Latin. The "u" is used for the /w/ sound often in English (especially following "q") and in Spanish. I also can see how the pointed form of the character, "v" could evolve into the rounded form, "u" in writing.

Where my confusion comes in is how the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ came to be assigned to the pointed "v." This caused centuries of scholars to basically mis-pronounce Latin. The same sound is represented by the pointed form, "v" in English. And even more confusing is how the double "v," which was created to differentiate /w/ from /u/, came to represent the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ in German. The /v/ sounds to my ears like a completely different phoneme unrelated to /u/ or /w/.

  • It's not unrelated. Development of [w] sounds to [v] has been quite common in the history of Indo-European languages. – brass tacks Feb 1 '16 at 2:27
  • @sumelic So this change has happened in other languages besides Latin? So it's probably not as far of a stretch as I'm thinking. – Tom Feb 1 '16 at 19:02
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The phoneme /w/ in Latin underwent a phonetic change around the second half of the 1st century AD, though this was a low prestige sound change, becoming pronounced [β] and later [v]. Hence the letter is usually pronounced [v] because that it how it was pronounced in later Latin. This is similar to the situation with the fricative pronunciation of Greek <φ θ χ>: classical pronunciation changed.

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  • Are you sure it was a phonetic change and not phonemic? – Alex B. Feb 1 '16 at 17:21
  • Well, it was initially a phonetic change, which was then phonologized, and eventually lexicalized. – user6726 Feb 1 '16 at 17:28
  • @AlexB: I think it would only have been a phonemic change if intervocalic /b/ had already been softened to [β] at this point. It seems hard to tell which of these sound changes came first. – brass tacks Feb 1 '16 at 17:43
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    @sumelic Fair enough - didn't mean to nitpick! I asked because Weiss 2009 (2011) talks about the w ~ β merger in Vulgar Latin, which included w > β and simultaneous b > β (intervocalic position only) (Weiss 2009/2011, p. 512). Mergers are phonemic, aren't they? – Alex B. Feb 1 '16 at 17:59
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    I think it is a half-coincidence. The Cyrillic fact derives from a sound change that Greek underwent where /b/ → [v], a change that Latin also enjoyed, Those are independent facts, but not totally coincidental since it is a common sound change. – user6726 Feb 4 '16 at 16:14

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