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by Travis Williams
cold bench with motto

Perhaps since the dawn of time people have debated the pronunciations of certain words.

Is it “po-TAY-toe” or “po-TAH-toe?”

Is it “to-MAY-toe” or “to-MAH-toe?”

Virginia Tech doesn’t have a stake in either of those debates, but there is a pronunciation conundrum that hits close to home.

Hokies pronounce our university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), in very different ways. The word Ut might rhyme with “but,” “boot,” “foot,” or even something completely different. A similar issue arises with Prosim; some pronounce it with an “s” sound while others use a “z” sound.

After conferring with dozens of Hokies and reaching no clear resolution, we turned to Associate Professor Andrew Becker, who teaches Latin and ancient Greek in Virginia Tech’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, for guidance.

Andrew Becker

Andrew Becker

“I’ve heard people go all the way from saying ‘ut’ as the ‘uh’ sound in ‘but,’ to the ‘oo,’ as in ‘boot.’ And actually, where you want to land is halfway between those. You want to land on the ‘u,’ as in ‘put.’ So, there’s a little bit of lip rounding, as in ‘foot,’ not a lot like ‘oo,’ not flat like ‘uh,’” Becker said.

Becker also weighed in on the word “Prosim.”

“Most people make the mistake of making a ‘z’ sound. Prosim would be ‘pro,’ as in ‘professor,’ or ‘protest,’ and ‘sim,’ like ‘simple’ or ‘simulate,’” Becker said.

Becker is, however, quick to provide a disclaimer and a possible explanation for the variety of pronunciations out there.

“Latin was spoken as a native language for over a millennium and used across much of Mediterranean, North Africa, Middle East, and Western Europe during the Roman Empire. It was then used as an international language in the church and in education in Europe for another millennium or so. There was a lot of variation, from time to time, place to place, town to town, social class to social class, and person to person, so we can't be too pedantic and precise about how people would have said Ut Prosim.

“But a standard pronunciation became settled, modeled on the Classical Age of Rome—about 200 BCE to about 200 CE—when our most-well-known authors were writing, such as Vergil, Ovid, Catullus, Caesar, Cicero, and Horace. In this standard pronunciation, ‘ut’ would have been more like ‘foot’ or ‘put’, and this is the way we teach it now.”

But Becker cautions that spelling, unlike pronunciation, isn’t up for debate. “I do a lot of consultation on ancient Greek and Latin tattoos for students (and others), many incorporating ‘ut prosim’ into them. In that case, no matter how you pronounce it, it’s crucial to get the spelling right for whatever Latin or Greek you add. It’s sad to see a mangled internet translation inked on someone’s ankle.” TW

Students give their pronunciations of the university's motto: Ut Prosim. We then hear from Andrew Becker, associate professor of Latin and Ancient Greek, who shares the proper pronunciation.