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The shape and length of the apex can vary, sometimes within a single inscription. While virtually all apices consist of a line sloping up to the right, the line can be more or less curved, and varies in length from less than half the height of a letter to more than the height of a letter. Sometimes, it is adorned at the top with a distinct hook, protruding to the left. Rather than being centered over the vowel it modifies, the apex is often considerably displaced to the right.
Although hardly known by most modern Latinists, the use of the sign was actually quite widespread during classical and postclassical times. The reason why it so often passes unnoticed lies probably in its smallish size and usually thinner nature in comparison with the lines that compose the letter on which it stands. Yet the more careful observer will soon start to notice apices in the exhibits of any museum, not only in many of the more formal epigraphic inscriptions, but also in handwritten palaeographic documents. However, otherwise punctilious transcriptions of the material customarily overlook this diacritic.
An apex is not used with the letter i; rather, the letter is written taller, as in lv́ciꟾ·a·filiꟾ (lūciī a filiī) at left.
Other expedients, like a reduplication of the vowels, are attested in archaic epigraphy; but the apex is the standard vowel-length indication that was used in classical times and throughout the most flourishing period of the Roman education system. Its use is recommended by the best grammarians, like Quintilian, who says that writing the apex is necessary when a difference of quantity in a vowel can produce a different meaning in a word, as in malus and málus or liber and líber or rosa and rosá.
Oblivious of the apex, modern Latin spelling has recently started marking long vowels by means of the macron, a sign that had always been used, and still is, to mark metrically long syllables (more recently called heavy syllables). This has created confusion between syllable and vowel length in Latin orthography, and most western dictionaries still fail to sufficiently describe the nature of Latin vowels properly because of this. To further confuse matters, the acute accent is sometimes used in Latin to mark stressed syllables, as in Spanish, when the macron is not used.
Identification with the sicilicus
The apex is often contrasted with another ancient Latin diacritic, the sicilicus, which is said to have been used above consonants to denote that they should be pronounced double. However, in his article Apex and Sicilicus, Revilo P. Oliver argues that they are one and the same sign, a geminationis nota, which was used over any letter to indicate that the letter should be read twice. The distinction between a sicilicus that was used above consonants and an apex that was applied to vowels is then completely artificial: “There is no example of this mark [the sicilicus] that can be distinguished from an apex by any criterion other than its presence above a letter that is not a long vowel.” “No ancient source says explicitly that there were two different signs; ...”. The presence of this sign, whatever its name, over a consonant is very scarcely attested though.
If Revilo P. Oliver is right, the apex as a sign denoting vowel length would have its origin in the time when long vowels were written double. Then, when long vowels ceased to be regularly written twice, the usage of the sicilicus above vowels evidently remained, even after it fell out of use above consonants, and the apex, as it was now called, was redefined as a sign denoting the phonematic feature of vowel length, rather than as a purely orthographic shorthand.
However, Oliver's view that the two marks were identical has recently been challenged; see sicilicus.
- Apex and Sicilicus, Revilo P. Oliver, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 87, No. 2. (Apr., 1966), p. 149.
- Inst. 1,7,2s: adponere apicem ... interim necessarium, cum eadem littera alium atque alium intellectum, prout correpta vel producta est, facit: ut 'malus' arborem significet an hominem non bonum apice distinguitur, 'palus' aliud priore syllaba longa, aliud sequenti significat, et cum eadem littera nominativo casu brevis, ablativo longa est, utrum sequamur plerumque hac nota monendi sumus.