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How did the ancients pronounce the Latin diphthong 'au'?
Three characters from ancient Rome enliven this enquiry. The first was Plotus, born in the mid-3rd century BC in Umbria which had been co-erced into Rome’s political control only a decade or two before his birth.

He grew up with a talent for comedy and theatre, and took his entourage to Rome to seek fame and fortune, where in time he became hugely successful and the best remembered of all Roman dramatists. On his arrival in Rome he switched the spelling of his name to Plautus, what was it seems a uniquely Roman lettering, which he may well have done for comic airs and graces as well as to sell his Roman brand of theatre. 

Two centuries later, Publius Claudius Pulcher was a young man with political aspirations and a mischievous personality (e.g. crashing an all-women festival in drag). He was a protégé of Caesar, and gained his support in his bid for the office of tribune. The one obstacle to this ambition was his family background. He was too posh. By an longstanding convention tribunes had to be elected from plebeians only, and patricians were not allowed to stand. In theory the tribune was the people’s politican, even though the patrician-plebeian distinction by this time was nominal, and no tribune was ever elected from the non-wealthy classes. But the old law stood in Claudius’ way, until Julius Caesar arranged for him to be adopted by a plebeian family and thus to qualify for successful election.

At some point Claudius changed the spelling of his name to Clodius. It’s not certain he changed it, for it is possible it was a sneery put-down by aristocratic observers (though there is no evidence for this despite plenty of other sneers). More likely he or his PR team thought it helpful to adopt a popular street-level spelling to appear more matey with the people. His sister Claudia, famous for her relationships with Catullus, Caelius and possibly Cicero, changed her name too, to Clodia. The next generation, however, reverted back to the old spelling.

And thirdly there is the evidence of Vespasian, emperor from AD 69–79. He was just what the principate needed after the turmoils of Nero’s reign and the subsequent flurry of emperors in AD 69. This practical man was a countryman with a humorous twinkle, born in Italy not into a senatorial but equestrian family. There is a story told by Suetonius that one of his assistants, a man of consular rank by the name Florus, whispered some advice into his emperor’s ear on the pronunciation of the word for ‘wagons’: he advised Vespasian to say plaustra not plostra. The next day Vespasian greeted him as ‘Flaurus’. 

The ‘o’ spelling was an Italian/country version, which appeared more and more in the capital as people moved there from the country. There is evidence of later corrections from o to au, and prescriptive advice in the grammarians about what was proper Latin: plaudite for plodite (the instruction to applaud at the end of plays); caupo for copo (innkeeper) and lautus for lotus (washed). To many ears there simply wasn't a great deal of difference between the two.

The ‘au’ lettering seems to have been a particularly Roman spelling, with a sound not so different from ‘o’; in other words, not as wide apart as between the English words for a noisy argument, a ‘row’ and what you do with an oar, ‘row’, but distinct enough to trouble Florus. 

What was behind this 'particularly Roman spelling' and sound is not easy to establish. The influence of Greek lettering and sounds among educated Romans (who learned to read and declaim classical Greek) crops up in many aspects of the Roman language. And the 'au' sound was probably no exception. Erudite Romans (and those affecting educated polish) will have been influenced by the presence in Greek of both 'au' and 'o', and this will have reinforced the distinction in Latin. But this Latin diphthong (written 'av' the single letter 'v' served for both the consonant 'v' and the vowel 'u') long predates the appetite for Greek learning in Rome. It is likely that the roots of the Roman-ness of 'au' must lie in the speech of a much earlier time when language contact for most Romans was largely limited to the seven hills of Rome.

And now some small print. If you are feeling that a degree of darkness envelopes the subject you are not alone! (Exciting as it is from time to time to find a flicker of light...). Take the question of Greek influence. This is not at all straightforward. Questions remain about how they pronounced their language, and how their pronunciation had changed in the centuries between Plato and Cicero. Moreover, the influence of Greek was not merely through educated and literary channels. At street-level there were countless Greek words, Greek slang and other mannerisms, which drifted across the Adriatic and which Romans of all social backgrounds picked up on.

Those of us who seek to recreate a pronunciation of Latin rely on no little speculation, if in a number of cases we might say it’s common sense. There is plenty of evidence, from grammarians, from inscriptions, from transliteration into other languages, from the later Romance languages and the more internal clues in poetry and speeches. Graffiti, puns and spelling mistakes all play a part in our reconstruction. But this evidence creates only a partial, skeletal picture, and does not offer much on idiosyncratic difference. Take aufero (I take away) as an example: au-fero has come to be pronounced as any other au, which is necessary if not to muddle with the sound of affero (I bring to), a development of ad + fero. But aufero was a combination of ab with fero. Surely a case for an 'av' sound at some point… And that brings au into a different light altogether.

For more on the evidence for sounds, still the best survey of Latin pronunciation (in English) is the half-century-old Vox Latina by W.Sidney Allen. 

© George Sharpley September 2012

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