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Prosody of dead languages

  Tags: Dead Languages
 Language Learning Forum : Philological Room Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 6
17 February 2015 at 5:31pm | IP Logged 
I've heard and read so many times "Thanks to linguistic research, we know how Ancient Greek/Latin/Literary Sinitic sounded". Yet as I'm now investigating a bit of Latin, I only learn how the phonemes of Latin are supposed to sound. Yet, as we know all to well, you can hit all phonemes perfectly yet sound completely foreign, and you can miss phonemes left and right and still sound pretty good, depending on how your prosody is. Swedish prosody is different from English prosody is different from French prosody, etc. And the speakers of the Assimil Latin course I've got generally seem to get the phonemes right, but they all sound very Italian.

Does anyone know if any research has been made on the prosody of for example Latin? Searching for "Latin prosody" only gives me results on poetry and meter, which is different. I'd guess that it's much, much more difficult to investigate the prosody of a dead language than investigating its phonology. Maybe even impossible? Techniques like onomatopoetic words and loan words can obviously not be used. The only source I can think of is descriptions like "Swedes sound like they're singing", since I doubt ancient writers wrote anything about prosody (I may be wrong?). For example, did the Romas increase the pitch at the end of the sentence to indicate a question?

Anyone know anything about this?

EDIT: Now that I think of it, this kinda goes for conlangs, too. What's the correct prosody of Esperanto?

Edited by Ari on 17 February 2015 at 5:34pm

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 Message 2 of 6
17 February 2015 at 7:25pm | IP Logged 
In the case of Greek and Latin, the fact that we have great deals of metered poetry helps give some sense, as the
poetry had to be intelligible when read in meter. This is, however, more helpful for Greek, the source of the various
classical meters, than for Latin, which tried to shoehorn its language into Greek forms. Also, ancient grammarians of
both languages discuss at great length the execution of the accents, but here again, the material is often suspect for
Latin, since the Romans regarded Greek grammar as normative and tried to explain Latin accordingly. Thus, Latin
grammarians will sometimes describe something akin to a pitch accent, even though Latin had a stress accent, and
even Greek by that time had shifted from a pitch to a stress accent.

That's the other complicating factor. The discussions of the Greek accent (and many other phenomena, such as the
quality of the vowels) often do not represent spoken Greek of the time of the grammarians themselves, but of earlier
eras. Once the ideas gained a canonical status (e.g. Plato's discussion in the Cratylus), later generations repeated
them without question. In the case of classical Greek, I would say that there is still a good deal of uncertainty about
how to execute the pitch accent. One clue as to the prosody is that, for the overwhelming number of words, the
accent has remained in the same place from antiquity to today, despite the shift from pitch to stress accent. Since
the majority of Greek speakers over the millennia have been illiterate, this cannot be just a function of accents being
preserved in writing. Also, accents were written only sporadically for much of the medieval manuscript tradition.
That is to say that the prosody of modern Greek, despite various changes in pronunciation, has to be an important
element of determining ancient Greek prosody, at least as far back as the Hellenistic period. To go farther back into
the Classical period and the time of the pitch accent, however, is much more a matter of interpretation.

This appeal to the descendent language is often also made in the case of Latin. Of course, this often requires
triangulating between the Romance languages, but the patterns do emerge.

C.S. Allen's books Vox Graeca and Vox Latina set forth the basic evidence for each.
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 Message 3 of 6
17 February 2015 at 7:31pm | IP Logged 
Maybe you know that already, but in class we were told that Latin was tonal (kinda the way Swedish or Croatian is, not as hardcore as Mandarin). So stressed vowels were distinguished by the tone and not length in classical Latin, but that was lost later on, as all stressed vowels became long and many short ones disappeared or changed.
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 Message 4 of 6
18 February 2015 at 4:39am | IP Logged 
All the above is regarding the elements of language that live on the border between phonetics and prosody: tone,
lexical stress, pitch accents. When you get down to the level of things that are prosody and not phonetic at all,
we know almost nothing. We cannot reconstruct, for example, how Classical Latin speakers varied the pitch and
speed of their speech as they made declarative statements, yes/no questions, open-ended questions,
enumerated lists, etc.

In fact, reconstructing these things may be in principle impossible, because they are so variable. Differences in
intonation at that level are a big part of what's distinctive of different regional accents. Even listening to audio
recordings from 50 years ago, you notice that people talk funny, because the prosody patterns change over time.
Unlike with phonemes, there's simply no information remaining in modern languages that would allow you to
reconstruct whether pitch increased at the end of declarative sentences in different parts of the Roman empire.
And the ancient grammarians, I assume, did not write much about that kind of thing.

Even things like the Swedish sing-songiness would be extremely difficult to reconstruct. Future linguists might
be able to reconstruct that Swedish has a pitch accent, but without audio recordings, they would not be able to
determine how it sounded. Japanese also has a pitch accent, but it doesn't sound sing-songy at all. While pitch is
contrastive in Japanese, the differences don't take a single vowel through the swinging pitch contour that gives
Swedish that quality.

In Esperanto, it is correct to stress the penultimate syllable of words, although stress is not a contrastive
phoneme. When it comes to more subtle things like pitch contour, you can basically do whatever you want. You
don't need to use it to mark questions; there's a particle for that. So you can either use pitch contours from your
native language, or imitate your favorite Esperanto speakers, but there's no recognized right or wrong there.

Edited by robarb on 18 February 2015 at 4:44am

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 Message 5 of 6
18 February 2015 at 4:45pm | IP Logged 
Esperanto prosody has some well-defined features: the penultimate syllable of words are stressed, there's no vowel reduction, etc. As robarb says, pitch contours are underspecified. I wouldn't go so far as to say there's no right and wrong here, but a wide range of options sound fairly natural/neutral, while some options really do sound highly accented.

As John Wells has pointed out, people who natively speak a handful of languages, including Serbian, have a pronunciation, including prosody, in Esperanto which sounds particularly pleasant.
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 Message 6 of 6
14 March 2015 at 3:40am | IP Logged 
To really get the mora business straightened away would probably help one's prosody.
Latin was, to my understanding, mora timed. I also suspect that some of the features that
frequently get edited out of texts affected it too. I'm talking prodelision (agendum'st)
and some alternations (vin? for visne?). Also, the nasalized final m really effects how
things sound.

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