Colchester Castle: mind your 'V's and 'U's

Something a little different today. Gingerous has emailed in this photo of a (20th-century) plaque at Colchester Castle:


And he asks: "Why is the letter U is replaced with the letter V in all the text?"

I've already sent a brief reply to Gingerous but I wasn't 100% confident in my answer. So, just for a change, I was wondering if anyone out there would like to have a go at giving an explanation...

4 comments:

garik said...

It's a self-conscious archaism. The Romans didn't distinguish between U and V. Julius Caesar, for example, would have written his own name GAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR. This made sense according to Classical Latin phonology: he would have pronounced Veni vidi vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered") as /'weni 'widi 'wiki/. Clearly /w/ is not very far off from /u/, so there was little need to distinguish the sounds in spelling. Later on, however, /w/ came to be pronounced more like /v/ in Vulgar Latin, and this is reflected in modern Romance languages.

In the Middle Ages, two variants of the letter V had come into use — one angular (historically better suited to carved inscriptions) and the other curved. Eventually, one came to be used to represent the consonant exclusively, and the other to represent the vowel.

So using V instead of U in modern languages gives modern monuments the air of ancient Roman ones. Of course, it's also easier to carve.

TootsNYC said...

I went to a PVBLIC SCHOOL.

And I never thought the U would have been that much easier to carve than any of the OTHER curved letters.

I think "self-conscious archaism" is good; so is "pretentious archaism."

JD said...

Thanks for that, Garik. It was the path I was going down in my email to Gingerous but you explained it much more eloquently and concisely. Plus you know more about Latin than me...

The Ridger, FCD said...

Garik's got to be right.