Latin's Word Accent: Stress or Pitch? (Discussion Moved from True or False Thread)


Civis Illustris
when reading verse the verse ictus was given stress.

Let me just say very quickly that I never said that and I don't believe this is true. I've had other debates with people on how Latin verse should be read (I don't remember where exactly; I think it was with Godmy and to some extent with Pacifica ), but I've never claimed that Romans actually read their poetry that way.

I've cast doubts on other ways of reading their poetry and I've said that *we* might as well stress the ictus to get a remote feeling for how a Roman might have perceived quantitative metre. However, I never suggested that that was the way they actually recited their poetry.


Staff member
I've cast doubts on other ways of reading their poetry and I've said that *we* might as well stress the ictus to get a remote feeling for how a Roman might have perceived quantitative metre.
This certainly at least helps us with memorization of verses.


Civis Illustris
I'm not arguing that Quintilian didn't believe that there was a difference between acute and circumflex, so for my purposes it is irrelevant whether vel is used.
In that case I must have misunderstood you ... but then I don't fully understand what you were arguing for ...

What do you think 'stress' is? Unlike pitch, 'stress' is not definable in itself; it's phonetically a product of other factors, which include duration, volume, and pitch. In standard English, all these are used as cues to whether a syllable is stressed or not (for more on this, see this document, under 'Perceptual Cues to Word Stress in English'). But this does not mean that we can't contrast English stress with Japanese pitch accent.
By stress I mean aspiratory stress as in English.

No. Firstly, I'm expressly not stating that Latin is stress-timed, I'm saying it has a stress accent.
Secondly, my argument is:

Languages with a stress accent often include an element of pitch in stress.
If Latin had a stress accent, word stress may have thus included an element of pitch.
If this is so, Latin speakers listening to a pitch accent language may plausibly have heard the pitch accent as being like their stress accent.
This explains why, if Latin was a stress accent language, it adopted the terminology of the Greek pitch accent to describe its accent.
Consequently, that Latin grammarians adopted the terminology of a pitch accent to describe their own language is not as implausible as it might seem to you.
I wonder if we're just getting caught up in terminology here ... I think you might mean something else by stress accent than I was talking about.

This argument seems invalid.
True. Discard it.

No, it doesn't. A) Some speakers of Greek could have still had a pitch accent, and the speakers with the stress accent would have undoubtably interpreted this as those speakers just pronouncing the accent in a different way. If the Greek accent was realised both as a pitch accent and a stress accent by different speakers - but described by Greek grammarians in terms of the original pitch accent - it would in fact make it even more likely that the Roman grammarians would adopt the same terms to describe a stress accent.
B) I don't think they would have distinguished 'pitch accent' and 'stress accent'. No ancient grammarian that I know of ever refers to such a difference, nor is there any reason why they should.
C) Why wouldn't it 'work'? The accent is immaterial to Greek quantitative verse. A bigger problem in reading Greek poetry was that the quantities were disappearing - but this didn't stop people 'pretending' that they were still there and continuing to produce quantitative poetry.
I don't think I would disagree with any of this ... which again makes me wonder if I understood you correctly to begin with (or vice versa).

Good, in that case I have understood you correctly - but why have you then used the phrase 'stress-timed' twice elsewhere in the same response?
poor use of terminology?

So your point is: 'Plautus and Terence often end an iambic line with a two syllable word; this makes it impossible to have coincidence of ictus and lexical accent; thus they can't have been trying to ensure coincidence of ictus and lexical accent.' ? Surely this doesn't rule out an overall statistical preference for coincidence of ictus and lexical accent.
No, it doesn't. I'm sure such a statistical preference is there, probably somewhere between 60 and 80% ... I still find the thought weird that you have poetry in your language that goes to 20-30% against the way you would normally perceive your language ...

You miss my point (which isn't directed against your argument). If Saturnian verse is stress based (which nobody really believes any more anyway) and it is truly ancient, it presumably goes back to when Latin had a word-initial stress accent, before it had the Classical accent (whatever that might be): thus it's not a good guide to the nature of the Classical accent anyway. So even if Saturnian verse is stress based, it says nothing about the accent in the Classical period.
Ok, point taken.

I don't know. But I guess you could argue that a pitch accent might also block shortening; my argument was directed against the idea that there was no word accent in Latin, rather than that this was not a pitch accent.
Ok, maybe I really got lost in unclear terminology there. Let me take the other post you made, because it was quite interesting:

Obviously I guess Bitmap would disagree with the basic assumptions involved in the interpretation.
I don't think so ... to some extent, it was the point I was trying to make ...

Yes - Allen makes a lot of this in Accent and Rhythm, and even uses it to try and explain some features of Greek metrical technique. I haven't read the book fully, so I don't want to judge for certain: but I think other scholars have suggested that it might be some sort of psycho-acoustic phenomenon, ie. a structure that's there in the way people listen to metre but has no phonetic realisation.
I thought it had to be something along those lines. The language must have worked (and probably to some extent sounded) in a way that its speakers registered quantity much more strongly than we do nowadays.

Incidentally, since starting this argument I've changed my mind a little over the practice of reading by stressing the ictus, which I had assumed was some modern invention designed to make ancient poetry readable in the Middle Ages. In this thesis on 'The Christianisation of Latin Metre', in the section entitled 'The evolution of prosodic terminology in late antiquity' (pp187 on), the interpretation offered is that the practice of stressing the ictus began in late antiquity when the vowel quantity distinctions disappeared/became quality distinctions, and that this can be seen in the grammarians' descriptions of ictus and metre. In that case, stressing the ictus would indeed be an ancient practice, though not original to the composition of Classical Latin poetry (and I'm not particularly more partial to it than before).
I was under the impression that it was a developement of late antiquity as well ... because somebody mentioned it on a German forum once (quite a few years, ago) ... I just believed it and never really read up on it, though. But isn't that essentially what I was trying to say? They had no way of really perceiving the metre in the same way the classical Latin antiquity did, but it was important for them to preserve the rhythm their predecessors may have felt, which is why they developed that reading technique.

I never claimed stressing the verse accent is what Vergil or Ovid did. I always said I just preferred the verse accent because it might give me more of a feeling of the rhythm they might have perceived by different means (what means exactly, I have no idea). Usually, when people tell me this was not the way verse was ready classically (which I acknowledge), they then read me the verse as if it were a piece of prose with a rather strong German/English aspiratory accent ... which usually makes me think 'That can't have been the way they read it, either.' ... which made me say things like 'I don't believe it was a [fully] stress-timed accent' or 'I don't believe that stress played as much of a role as we might think' ... but I'm not sure if I didn't just have a different understanding of what 'stress' was than you did.

Regarding the rhythm: I think it was a rather important element and something that was important for people to feel/perceive somehow because I think it fulfilled a similar function as our rhymes: it helped people memorise bigger portions of verse more easily. That's also why I think it couldn't completely (and also not to 20-30%) run against the way the language was naturally spoken; and it's why I think they developed different reading techniques when it eventually did due to the language having evolved.