Contrary to the traditional supposition of /ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ/ vs /iː uː eː oː/, the idea that Classical Latin contrasted the short and long versions of high and mid (or just mid) vowels only quantitatively, and not qualitatively, seems to have attracted attention from communities on the internet (see e.g. here and here). This was apparently inspired by Calabrese (2003), a conference paper about phonological features, but the idea is nothing new according to Loporcaro (2015: 33):

Mignot (1975: 208) states that a difference in quality (tenseness) is conceivable but cannot be demonstrated with certainty, while Weiss (2009: 64) denies any such difference for [Classical Latin] ... Even if this differentiation is granted, there is still a matter of dispute as to the point when long vs short vowels, and exactly which ones among them—whether only mid or also high vowels—differed by quality ...

Loporcaro concludes, "direct evidence for a phonetic tense vs lax distinction ... is available for as early as the 2nd century AD." So is the aforementioned theory just a fringe view? Or is it accepted (or at least considered) by some legitimate scholars?

  • In actual Latinist circles, it may be fringe (I don’t know), but in general, I’d say the assumption that the vowels only differed by length is the default. At least it’s the only one I ever encountered in high school and still see in ‘normal’ people. I didn’t come across the quantitative difference until historical linguistics class in university. Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 17:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I don't know where and when you went to high school, but in my experience schools in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the UK, and the US do absolutely distinguish Latin long and short vowels both by length and by quality nowadays (with variable accuracy and success; my Dutch-speaking high school Latin teachers also pronounced long and short a as [ɑ] and [aː] respectively). The Restored pronunciation caught on big.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 21:13
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    @Cairnarvon I guess national languages probably also make a difference – I went to high school in rural Denmark about 20 years ago, and the national language was therefore one that possesses /i u e o/ but not the stereotypical /ɪ ʊ ɔ/ (though /ɛ/ does exist). In Spanish, French and Italian classes, a lot of time was used on pronouncing the more open/lax vowels properly, but not in Latin. In places that have lax/tense-based languages like English, German or Dutch as the primary language, it makes sense that that carries over into Latin as well. Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 21:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet " I guess national languages probably also make a difference" - hear! hear! For instance, afaik, even the most progressively thinking Latinists in Russia do not make the tense-lax vowel distinction in speech simply because this distinction doesn't exist in Russian. If I had a penny for yet another research article on how to pronounce Caesar in Classical Latin "most authentically", using the most updated version of the so called restored pronunciation, I would be a millionaire now.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 22:44


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