Sunday, October 14, 2012

Latin vowels—do macrons tense vowels mark?

I've done some trawling around the internet and have yet to find any satisfactory answers.

So far as I can gather from Allen's Vox Latina the Latin's vowel space is something like this:

    \             |   |
     \   ɪ        | ʊ |
      \           |   |
        \         |   |
         \        |   |
          \       |   |
            \     |   |
             \    |   |
              \   |   |

The only true long/short difference would seem to be the difference between a and ā, represented as /a/ and /aː/ in IPA (at least in native Latin words). All the other seem to be a quality difference. e and ē are /ɛ/ and /e/. i and ī are /ɪ/ and /i/. o and ō are /o/ and /ɔ/. u and ū are /u/ and /ʊ/. (Or at least I think that's what it is. Allen didn't use IPA.)

Again, as far as I can tell, Italian doesn't make a tense/lax distinction the way English does. (Of course I can't find the source right now.) I mention Italian because it has the vowel space most similar to Latin—as well as some similar contrasts going on. This is, it uses e to mark both /e/ and /ɛ/ and o to mark both /o/ and /ɔ/ in the way that Latin did. Or course macrons are an addition by later scholars—no native Latin writer would have used them.

The reason I'm curious is that some consonant clusters can trigger the change of a vowel from one vowel to its long equivalent. Here's the easiest to follow situation.
/a/ -> [aː] / _ns
No problem. It happens pretty clearly when shifting from the root of something like amant- to the nominative of amāns. We've made the vowel longer when it occurs before an ns cluster. All good to go. Here's the hitch.
/ɛ/ -> [e] / _ns
So in a root form of vident-, we get vidēns when shifting to the nominative. Again, nothing unusual when you know about this particular macron rule. The problem is that we're going from /wɪdɛnt/ to /wɪdens/. If it were  */wɪdɛːns/, it would be a clear example of vowel (duration) lengthening.

Now, if Latin employed vowel tenseness, it would be really clear, and simple too, to state the rule like this:
/V-tense/ -> [V+tense] / _ns
But alas, there are not recordings or sonograms of Latin speakers… We may never know.