Does Latin Sound Like Italian?

You may have wondered if Latin sounds like Italian, and whether someone with no knowledge of Italian would be able to tell the two languages apart just based on how they sound.

Overall, Latin sounds less melodic than Italian and has more consonants, leading to a slightly harsher sound. Although Italian, of the Romance languages, is the one that sounds closest to Latin, the two languages are clearly distinguishable.

I will now read two different passages in Latin and Italian. Listen out for the similarities and differences.

Listen out for similarities and differences!

This is an extract from the Commentarii de Bello Gallico by Julius Caesar, where he gives us an account of the wars that he fought with the Celts and Gaels, who opposed Roman conquest:

Extract from De Bello Gallico – Latin
Extract from De Bello Gallico – Italian

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.

De Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar, Latin

La Gallia è, nel complesso, divisa in tre regioni: una di queste la abitano i Belgi, un’altra gli Aquitani e la terza la abitano quei (popoli) che nella propria lingua si chiamano Celti e, nella nostra, Galli. Tutti questi differiscono fra loro per lingua, istituzioni e leggi.

De Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar, Italian

This is an extract from Ode to Lesbia, one of Catullus’ most famous poems:

Extract from Ode to Lesbia by Catullus – Latin
Extract from Ode to Lesbia by Catullus – Italian

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,

rumoresque senum severiorum

omnes unius aestimemus assis!

Soles occidere et redire possunt:

nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,

nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Ode to Lesbia, Catullus, Latin

Viviamo, o mia Lesbia, e amiamoci,

e le dicerie dei vecchi severi

consideriamole tutte di valore pari a un soldo.

I soli possono tramontare e risorgere;

noi, quando una buona volta finirà questa breve luce,

dobbiamo dormire un’unica notte eterna.

Ode to Lesbia, Catullus, Italian

What similarities and differences did you spot? Read on for a more detailed comparison of Latin and Italian

What are the similarities between Latin and Italian?

Individual words look and sound similar in Latin and Italian. This is because many Latin and Italian words have the same, or a very similar, root that was preserved in the transition from Latin to Italian.

Here are a few examples:

Latin wordLatin word root Italian word root Italian wordEnglish word
TabulaTab-Tav-TavolaBoard/ plank
StudereStud-Stud-StudiareTo study

Both Italian and Latin have a certain musicality. This is because Latin and Italian don’t have silent vowels. Silent vowels are vowels which are spelled but not pronounced. In both Italian and Latin, each syllable contains one vowel (for example ta-bu-la and ta-vo-la), and, whenever a vowel is present, this is always pronounced.

In English, instead, many vowels are silent, such as the “e” in “evening” and “above” or the “u” in “biscuit”. For this reason, both Latin and Italian sound more melodic than other languages which have silent vowels, such as English.

What are the differences between Latin and Italian?

Latin has more consonants than Italian and sentences sound less melodic. This is because many of the Latin words end in a consonant and are followed by a word that begins with a consonant, and this clash between consonants produces a harsher sound in Latin.

Overall, Italian sounds more songlike than Latin because there are more vowels to be voiced, while, when you pronounce consonants, you stop the sound with your teeth, tongue or lips. This makes Italian sound more musical than Latin.

Can Italians understand Latin?

If you have asked yourself whether Latin and Italian sound similar, you may have also wondered if Italians can understand Latin.  

Native speakers of Italian reading, or listening to, Latin, can understand a large number of individual words and parts of sentences. They can also, sometimes, understand the gist of what is being spoken about, but this depends on how similar the individual Latin words and sentence structures within that text are to the Italian.

A large grammatical difference between Latin and Italian is that Latin has cases, which then disappeared in the transition from Latin to Italian. Cases are word endings which indicate the grammatical function of that word within the sentence, and its relationship with other words.

Cases make Latin difficult to understand for Italian speakers, despite the similarities between Latin and Italian. In Latin, a deeper analysis of grammar is necessary to understand what function a word serves in a sentence, and, therefore, what the meaning of the sentence is.

Image by sweetlouise

Also, Latin sentences do not have a strict word order, because cases (word endings) determine the function of words within a sentence. This makes it hard for a listener, or reader, to understand what is being said without first analysing and understanding the cases.

Instead, Italian, like a number of other languages, follows certain rules around word placement within a sentence. This makes it a lot easier for a listener, or reader, to understand sentences as they are spoken, and predict what is coming up next.

Final thoughts

It is important to note that the way that I pronounced Latin in this article is not necessarily the way that a native speaker of Latin would have pronounced it. As we don’t have access to a native Latin speaker, all we can do is try to reconstruct the original pronunciation as accurately as possible based on historical evidence.

The pronunciation that I have used is how Latin is read and taught in Italian schools, and this is thought to be very close to how Latin spoken by a native speaker would have sounded.

Native speakers of Italian listening to Latin, or reading it, would not be able to understand much more than the topic that is being spoken about, unless they had knowledge of grammar, and they analysed the written text. However, Latin and Italian sound similar overall, although Latin sounds harsher and less melodic because it has more consonants.