W versus V

How should V in Latin be pronounced? Students sometimes query what they regard as inconsistency on the part of their teachers.

‘What’s your name, sir?’ inquired the judge.

‘Sam Weller, my Lord,’ replied that gentleman.

‘Do you spell it with a “V” or a “W”?’ inquired the judge.

‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord,’ replied Sam; ‘I never had occasion to spell it more than once or twice in my life, but I spells it with a “V.” ‘

Here a voice in the gallery exclaimed aloud, ‘Quite right too, Samivel, quite right. Put it down a “we,” my Lord, put it down a “we.”‘

‘Who is that, who dares address the court?’ said the little judge, looking up. ‘Usher.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘Bring that person here instantly.’

‘Yes, my Lord.’

But as the usher didn’t find the person, he didn’t bring him; and, after a great commotion, all the people who had got up to look for the culprit, sat down again…

‘I believe you are in the service of Mr. Pickwick, the defendant in this case? Speak up, if you please, Mr. Weller.’

‘I mean to speak up, Sir,’ replied Sam; ‘I am in the service o’ that ‘ere gen’l’man, and a wery good service it is.’

‘Little to do, and plenty to get, I suppose?’ said Serjeant Buzfuz, with jocularity.

‘Oh, quite enough to get, Sir, as the soldier said ven they ordered him three hundred and fifty lashes,’ replied Sam.

Charles Dickens,The Pickwick Papers, Chapter 34

Such was the confusion between the sounds of V and W in the common speech of Londoners early in the 19th century; and when the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha were evacuated to England in 1961 to escape a volcanic eruption, linguistic scholars found the same confusion in their speech, preserved for more than 150 years.

It is easy to believe that the Latin sound of V got varying treatment in different parts of the empire. After all, consonants in modern Italian get varying treatment in different parts of Italy. In Florence, for example, they drink Hoha-Hola.

It is perhaps noteworthy that a similar consonant in Greek, known—but only just—to Homer’s predecessors, and misleadingly called the digamma, was sounded so lightly that it disappeared when speech came to be written down: ϝοικος, ϝοινος, ϝειδον, etc.

My tutor, later a professor in the faculty, pronounced it neither as a full W sound, nor as a full-sounding V, but something lightly in between, and certainly non-plosive. When he recited Virgil or Cicero, we thought it sounded authentic.