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As I recall, we were taught in Latin that "b" was pronounced like "v", but in class we always said "b" anyway. For example, "liber" was pronounced LEE-ber. Now, in Welsh the word for book is "llyfr" which is pronounced "liffer" and is the same word, so this would suggest that the ancient Romans pronounced liber the same way, liffer.

Is that true, or was it pronounced libber or lee-ber? Or were different pronounciations used randomly by some Romans and not others?

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    No, you were taught in Latin that V was pronounced like /w/ or like /u/. B was always B in classical Latin, but it went various ways in daughter languages. Of which Welsh is not one. They're related, but more distant cousins than daughters. – jlawler Feb 2 '18 at 2:45
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    Llyfr is a loanword from Latin, of course. – fdb Feb 2 '18 at 8:48
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Latin "b" apparently developed a pronunciation variant [β] (a voiced bilabial fricative or approximant) at some point that was used between vowels. Presumably there was a period when the shift from [b] to [β] in this context was incomplete. One piece of evidence for this shift is spelling confusion between "u" and "b" in some Latin texts, which is attested as far back as the first century AD.

The article "Lenition and phonemic contrast in Majorcan Catalan", by José Ignacio Hualde, Marianna Nadeu & Miquel Simonet (in Romance Linguistics 2009, edited by Sonia Colina, Antxon Olarrea and Ana Maria Carvalho), says that

Whereas we cannot be sure when /b/ started to admit approximant realizations or even when these approximant realiations of intervocalic /b/ became the usual articulatory target, we know that /b/ merged with /w/ by the first century of our era. This is because around this time the graphemes B and V start getting confused (Allen 1978: 41). We also know that all Romance languages have merged the results of Classical Latin intervocalic -V- and -B- phonemes. The details of this evolution appear to have been the following. First, /b/ acquired approximant allophones in intervocalic position: [b] > [β]/V_V, as in HABERE [abe:re] > [aβe:re]. At this point, we would still have a contrast between /b/ and /w/, since HABERE [aβe:re] would contrast with LAVARE [lawa:re]. Then the contrast was lost, through another change affecting [w], which became labiodental, [w] > [v], as in [lawa:re] > [lava:re], thus reducing the distance between the two phonemes. A subsequent process was the merger between [β] and [v], which is found in all Romance languages

(p. 74)

I'm not sure what evidence the detailed description that Hualde, Nadeu & Simonet give of the stages of the sound change is based on. Maybe someone else will be able to say more.

Some other SE posts with relevant information:


Welsh had its own intervocalic lenition processes, actually, so I don't know if the form of the Welsh word llyfr tells us much about the pronunciation of the Latin source word.


A nitpick on the side: As far as I know, the pronunciation of Welsh "llyfr" is not represented accurately by "liffer", so I'm not sure why you suggest it is pronounced like that. The initial consonant is supposed to be a voiceless fricative [ɬ], and the middle consonant is supposed to be voiced [v]. In Welsh orthography, the single letter "f" represents the sound [v], while the voiceless fricative [f] is represented by the digraph "ff". The traditional way of approximating the pronunciation of "llyfr" using English sounds would be something like "thlivver".

The reconstructed Latin pronunciation of "liber" meaning "book" could be written as [ˈliber], [ˈlɪbɛr] if we want to get more specific about vowel quality, and [ˈlɪβɛr] if we want to represent a pronunciation with lenition of intervocalic b. This is something like English "libber" or "liver" (the organ), if you want an approximate comparison.

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    I recommend Adams The regional diversification of Latin 200 BC-AD 600 for a fuller, much more nuanced and accurate analysis of available data. Allen is only good for a beginner's course, and the paper you quote from seems rather marginal. – Alex B. Feb 3 '18 at 5:57
  • @AlexB.: Thanks for the recommendation; if you have the time to post an answer yourself with any further information you can share, I'm sure Tyler Durden and the other members of this site would appreciate it. I agree that the paper I cite is not great in terms of being a very well-recognized source; I just put it in because I thought it was better than just relying on my memory and the answers to other SE questions – brass tacks Feb 3 '18 at 6:02
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    @AlexB.: I do appreciate your comment; I didn't take it as a criticism. (And I prefer even critical comments that have valuable information to no comments at all.) It's just that I'm not sure how soon I will be able to look at it. I guess by posting an answer, I've taken on some responsibility for researching the answer to this question, but my original goal was just to share the information that I was already mostly aware of – brass tacks Feb 3 '18 at 6:14
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    "Latin "b" apparently developed a pronunciation variant [β] ": was this just one instance of intervocalic lenition in many varieties of vulgar Latin that led to the modern Romance varieties? Which is to say it really wasn't part of classical Latin, but rather regional varieties. – Mitch Feb 3 '18 at 21:33
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    @Mitch: my understanding is that the lenition of intervocalic b is thought to date back to Latin because of the evidence of intervocalic confusion of the letters B/V in text written in Latin, and the distribution of intervocalic B-lenition across all modern Romance varieties as opposed to the more limited distribution of intervocalic lenition of other consonants (note that standard Italian, for example, has /vita/ for "life", with un-lenited /t/ as the middle consonant). – brass tacks Feb 3 '18 at 21:49

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