The voice of the Roman

When I became a pupil at Highgate School in 1965, our first Latin teacher was an elderly fellow, the Reverend Gowing. Incidentally, there was another language teacher called Cummings.

Some of the boys in my Latin class, including me, had been taught that v in Latin was pronounced like v in ‘vine’. Other pupils and also Rev Gowing were of the opinion that v in Latin was pronounced like the w in ‘wine’. Believe it or not the question of how the ancient Romans pronounced v caused lively discussions in the Latin classes.

One day, Gowing brought a gramaphone record player into the Latin class. After placing a record on its turntable, he told us to listen carefully. The record was of a man reading a text in Latin. After a few minutes listening to this, Gowing switched off the recording and said triumphantly: “Did you hear that, boys? The reader pronounced v as w.”

I think that Gowing, who was probably almost 70 if not more in 1965, believed that the record contained the voice of an Ancient Roman, rather than someone speaking during the 20th century.

Some years later, I described this controversy about the Latin v to an Italian friend who had studied linguistics at university. She felt that although no one could be certain how the Ancient Romans pronounced Latin, it was likely that they would have pronounced v as v in vine. Her reasons were based on a study of the modern languages, which were descendants of Ancient Latin. This seemed sensible enough to me.

Both Gowing and Cummings, who taught me French and a little German, have passed away. Maybe the soul of the Reverend will have a chance to chat in heaven with the souls of the Ancient Romans. If it turns out that they pronounce v the way that he taught us, there might a a flash of lightning followed by a celestial voice booming out: “WENI WIDI WICI … I told you so, boys of Lower Fifth”. And, if the lightning has not struck me, I will shout back: “venue, video,victory.”