ASK FATHER: Mass in Classical Latin

-veni-vidi-vici--2From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

Could the Mass and the Office be said in the classical pronunciation?

Yes.  It would be a little strange, but, yes.

The way we speak Latin in the Church right now is based on how Italian is pronounced, or, how Romans pronounce Latin.  That’s reasonable, given that we are talking about the language of the Roman Church.  Who better than they?

Latin is pronounced in different ways, according to one’s background and nation.  The English school system had a truly weird system.  Germans do odd things with vowels.  The French… well….

What we call now the Classical Pronunciation is more or less the fruit of research into how Latin might have been pronounced in the late Republic and early Empire, in the Gold and Silver Age of Latin literature.  We extrapolate how things were pronounced by examining misspellings in inscriptions and other writings, along with morphology, etc.

That said, pronunciation was not uniform.  North Africa was different from Italian peninsula. Just as is the case today, pronunciation surely varied within cities.

Also, consider that between the Gold and Silver Ages of literature and, say, the time of Augustine of Hippo, there is not only a gulf of distance but a gulf of centuries.  Early Modern English in, say, the plays of Shakespeare, sounds a bit foreign to our ears until we adjust. Of course, reconstructed pronunciation helps us to hear rhymes and puns in Shakespeare.  Reconstructed Classical Latin pronunciation also helps in the learning of Latin.  Think about the principle parts of ago and how they are pronounced in Ecclesiastical and Classical systems.

People who are interested in solid scholarship on reconstructed pronunciation of classical Latin, and Greek for that matter, can look into the standard work of W. Sydney Allen, Vox Latina.  Also see E.H. Sturtevant. They both also wrote on Greek.

I did a lot of this sort of thing in grad school, but it has been while.  I am sure there are now some new resources.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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29 Responses to ASK FATHER: Mass in Classical Latin

  1. RomeontheRange says:

    Could the Mass and the Office be said in the classical pronunciation?
    Yes… but why ever would you want to? … Makes me think of those Renaissance atrocities in which Christ is invoked as “Iovis filius” and the like.

    Father is of course correct that there exists considerable variation within what is commonly called “Ecclesiastical Pronunciation,” but it is worth remembering that as a whole the Church’s own tradition of speaking Latin is a living tradition that has existed for centuries. It is therefore possessed of a certain historical validity that “Restored Classical Pronunciation” will never have, inasmuch as the latter is a synthetic attempt (scholarly, but necessarily synthetic) to re-create the sounds of the time of Caesar and Cicero in the absence of any audible models.

    If we’ve got a living tradition in the Church which is consonant with the uses to which the Church puts Latin — and we have — then let’s use it.

  2. Iacobus M says:

    I was taught the Restored Classical pronunciation in High School (public), and it was also used by my college professors (many of whom were Jesuits). I eventually decided to teach only the Ecclesiastical Pronunciation to my own students. This was partly for the excellent reasons Father gives above, but also because I discovered that Vergil’s Aeneid sounds just as beautiful, in fact much more beautiful, in the Church pronunciation, [Virgil better in Eccl. Latin? No. Just… no.] but Christmas Carols (which we sing in Latin the last class day before Christmas break) sound absolutely, horribly ridiculous in restored classical. The same would be true, I imagine, for the Liturgy of the Mass.

  3. Phil says:

    I just never could imagine Julius Caesar saying “Way-nee, Wee-dee, Wee-key.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…

  4. TuAutem says:

    Wanted to chime in on this, but see that RomeontheRange has made the points I wanted to quite well.
    I would just spell out further what’s already implicit in his and Fr. Z’s answers: Augustine and Ambrose pronounced “veni” the way Ecclesiastical pronunciation has it, not the so-called “restored classical” way (there are plenty of contemporary b/v misspellings to prove it).
    Maybe the same can’t be said for Pilate, but even then, he almost surely conducted all his business in Palestine in Greek anyway (and it would be… odd to attempt to mimic his pronunciation–or Cicero, or other pre-Christian pagans). Would a Coptic Christian try to pray in the reconstructed Ancient Egyptian pronunciation of Ramesses II, rather than the liturgical language of his tradition?

  5. Imrahil says:

    I was taught what we called the classical pronunciation. What it in fact was was the German pronunciation with some exceptions: c as k except in proper names and “ecce”, and maybe making some differnence between short and long vowels and short and long consonants. (In German, a long consonant is always preceded by a short vowel, and carries a stress. Likewise in German, a long vowel always carries a stress, and a stress-carrying vowel before a short consonant is always long. So — for the advanced speakers, they’d take care of that.)

    It was called the classical pronunciation because we would say kito instead of zito.

    As for our, if they are pure we do not do anything odd at all but speak them as they should be (length and stress problems set aside). As for diphthongs, well, you might say we use the Ecclesiastical pronunciation (which is “e”) but still strive to keep things apart. That results, of course, in the fact that we just speak a German umlaut. So ae is spoken as if it were ä, oe as if it were oe. By coincidence, those who have no ä,ö,ü on their tables spell them out as ae, oe, ue. (There is no ue in Latin though, just y, which is rendered as y.)

    For what it’s worth, I was once told that the SSPX uses Italian and the FSSP uses German pronunciation.

    But any time I here an “sc” before a bright vowel, especially at the beginnings of words, I do long for either classical “sk” or Italian “sh”. “sts”? Really?

    That said, the Dies irae line must be pronounced “statuens in parte destra. Better break your normal pronunciational habits than lose a rhyme. (Yes, I do the same in Shakespeare.)

  6. Imrahil says:

    Dear RomeontheRange,

    well, it was Dante, and in Italian no less, who has our Lord addressed as “sommo Giove”.

  7. Matt Robare says:

    I’ve been thinking that for Roman Rite Catholics in India you could do a Traditional Latin Mass in Sanskrit, which holds the same position in regards to many contemporary Indian languages as Latin does in Europe.

  8. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Not to be contrary, but I think Classical Latin explains how Julius Caesar conquered Britain:

    He looked up, proclaiming “Wainy”
    He looked down, proclaiming “Weedy”
    He looked at the Britons, proclaiming “Weaky”,

    and so they surrendered.

  9. LUCILIUS says:

    Reminds me of the terribly clunky Pian psalter. “Yeah! Let’s pray the psalter the way Cicero did!

  10. chantgirl says:

    I shudder to think of Mozart’s Ave Verum pronounced Aweh Wehrum . The V’s sound much more masculine.

  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I just never could imagine Julius Caesar saying ‘Way-nee, Wee-dee, Wee-key.’ ”

    Eh, what’s up doc?

    The Chicken

  12. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I shudder to think of Mozart’s Ave Verum pronounced Aweh Wehrum . The V’s sound much more masculine.”

    I think that was the fifth song on the recording, Elmer Fudd sings Mozart.

    Ohhh…I can see it, now, A Looney Tunes Latin Primer.

    The Chicken

  13. Mariana2 says:

    Here (in Scandinavia), at university, we use the classical pronounciation, but as I am a Catholic, I have permission to use Ecclesiastical pronounciation : ) !

  14. Mike says:

    Chicken, caveat [to be pronounced as the reader deems fit] lest you get dinged by Father for opening a wabbit hole!

  15. Matt R says:

    My Latin is idiosyncratic. I mostly follow the more Romano way, but as I am self-taught, putting the page to ear is hard. I can’t find sounds well (sightreading music, especially chant, is almost impossible). My pastor, being from a German-American parish, pronounces -gn separately, unlike Italian or French, and I occasionally carry over a French sound.

    The ICRSS celebrated a Solemn High Requiem Mass at the shrine in Hanceville, and their Latin was very French. I do not mind it for the most part, but the French r’s are a bit grating in Latin.

  16. Kerry says:

    “Fwow him to the gwound!”, Ecclesiastical or Classical?

  17. PatriciusOenus says:

    I certainly agree with Fr.Z. Unfortunately, this often becomes an unnecessarily contentious issue.

    There is a great deal of scholarship that suggests the “ecclesiastical pronunciation” didn’t exist until as recently as the 19th century (namely, Brittain’s Latin in Church: the history of its pronunciation; Wright’s Late Latin and Early Romance; and Adams’ Regional Diversification of Latin), and, therefore, the immutability and consistency of the system can easily be called into doubt. This later standardized ecclesiastical pronunciation vanished again within spoke/active use as evidenced by the confusion at Vatican II sessions when even highly competent Latinists could not comprehend one another easily due to the differences in regional pronunciation. Fr. Reginald Foster often shares the anecdotal evidence of a German Cardinal who would celebrate his Masses using the so-called restored or classical pronunciation (n.b, before V2!). I agree, excepting extenuating circumstances, that it would be weird and novel (i.e., a terrible idea) to use the “restored” pronunciation to celebrate the Church’s liturgy and that the “ecclesiastical” pronunciation should be used for liturgical purposes. As a traditionally minded Catholic, and a fluent Latin speaker, I really grieve the acrid disputes about pronunciation: I use the classical pronunciation because that is what I am comfortable with, what I learned first, and what I speak at home, but when I serve Mass or pray the rosary I use the ecclesiastical pronunciation.

    In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. People get to choose how they speak; if they aren’t understood by others, then that’s a problem. But Lord deliver us from polemics about our own language! Latin is a gem of the Catholic tradition to be loved and cherished, even if we pronounce it in quirky ways sometimes. I really wish the biggest problem we had with Latin in the Church were that everybody spoke it but people pronounced a few sounds differently! That would be a beautiful problem to have.

    (Much of the more recent research into Latin phonology and pronunciation has superseded Allen’s 1965 seminal work Vox Latina, which treats the elements of the classical pronunciation and isn’t really relevant to the question of classical versus ecclesiastical pronunciation.)

  18. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Fortescue used the classical pronunciation, because that’s what he knew best (and probably it was what most English people who knew Latin would have known). Presumably his parish got used to it; and of course, many Catholics back then were used to priests saying low Mass in a very low voice, so they probably didn’t really notice a big difference most of the time.

    I don’t really see a problem with any Latin pronunciation that’s consistent, as long as priests don’t copy off St. Philip Neri and mangle their Latin on purpose to keep themselves humble.

  19. uptoncp says:

    I remember reading on NLM that Westminster Cathedral experimented fairly briefly with using the New Pronunciation when it was new, in the early 20th Century. Comments were particularly made about Æ=eye, giving things like “in sycula syculorum”. I think “Gloria in exkelsis” would be particularly – what’s the opposite of euphonious?

  20. Andrew says:

    Aj hev inaf trable uiz inglisch. Nevr maind letn.

  21. pelerin says:

    I was so bad at Latin when at school that I have to admit that when I started attending Mass for the first time as a teenager I did not notice any difference! However attending Mass did open up the language for me in a way I had never experienced at school. I no longer saw it as a dead language – it had come alive in the Mass. ‘Et cum spiritu tuo’ automatically followed ‘Dominus vobis cum’ and all the responses soon became automatic. It was a long time before I learnt that Church Latin was actually pronounced differently from Classical Latin.

    Incidentally we learnt a slightly different joke about the invasion of Julius Caesar to the one mentioned above. When he arrived he said that the English were ‘weeny, weedy and weeky!’

  22. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    In some of my more “snarky” moods, I start to think that Latin is too modern.

    Reconstructed Galilean Aramaic!

    The dialect of the First Pope! “vere et tu ex illis es nam et loquella tua manifestum te facit.” (Matthew 26:73)

    If it was good enough St. Peter, then it’s good enough for me! Besides, if there were large, laminated cards with the full “A’boon d’Bashmaya” (“our Father who art in Heaven” in Aramaic) on it with both Hebrew writing, Syriac writting, English transliteration, and English translation, people will be too busy muddling their way through that to hold hands!

  23. donadrian says:

    I have to admit that I hate the Italianate pronunciation of Latin – to my classically trained ear it manages to sound both affected and sloppy. Englishmen have two perfectly good forms of Latin pronunciation available, so it seems silly to import another one that sounds like an Italian dialect. I once heard Sir Harold Macmillan (Lord Stockton), the former Prime Minister and then Chancellor of the University of Oxford, make a speech in the old pronunciation, apologising that he had learned his Latin at Eton before the new pronunciation came in. It was remarkably easy to follow; he made me rather regret its passing.
    Is it just Anglophone Catholics who affect the Italianate pronunciation? Spaniards don’t, nor do Germans. Somewhere at the back of my mind there is a 19th century ruling on the subject, but I cannot put my hand on it. Certainly, the ‘Rejiyna Chaylee’ abomination would have been completely unknown to the Recusants or Challoner, who would have spoken Latin rather in the way Macmillan did.

  24. David says:

    There is an interesting musical aspect to this interesting question. In the last few years, it has become a hallmark of the work of the world’s best early music choral groups to attempt to sing Latin sacred music using the Latin pronunciation that would have been in the composer’s milieu and thus in his mind when he composed the music in question. (Vowels have optimum pitches in terms of resonance and projection, and great composers are aware of the pronunciation of the text when they create music for it.) A fundamental principle for performers of early music care about appropriate performance practice is that one should attempt to understand and perform a musical work as the composer understood, intended, and conceived it. With respect to pronunciation, this means tha, for example, t a choir ideally should sing Palestrina using Roman church Latin, but should sing Lassus–who spent the pinnacle of his career in Munich–using 16th century German Latin pronunciation, and should sing Byrd using 16th century English Latin pronunciation. An excellent and interesting resource in this regard is “Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance”, edited by Timothy J. McGee, with A.G. Rigg and David N Klausner (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996), particularly its chapters on Anglo-Latin, French Latin, Spanish Latin, Portuguese Latin, Italian Latin, German Latin, and Netherlands Latin.

  25. David says:

    Sorry, the above post came through with a couple of typos. Here is a corrected version:

    There is an interesting musical aspect to this interesting question. In the last few years, it has become a hallmark of the work of the world’s best early music choral groups to attempt to sing Latin sacred music using the Latin pronunciation that would have been in the composer’s milieu and thus in his mind when he composed the music in question. (Vowels have optimum pitches in terms of resonance and projection, and great composers are aware of the pronunciation of the text when they create music for it.) A fundamental principle for performers of early music who care about appropriate performance practice is that one should attempt to understand and perform a musical work as the composer understood, intended, and conceived it. With respect to pronunciation, this means that, for example, a choir ideally should sing Palestrina using Roman church Latin, but should sing Lassus–who spent the pinnacle of his career in Munich–using 16th century German Latin pronunciation, and should sing Byrd using 16th century English Latin pronunciation. An excellent and interesting resource in this regard is “Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance”, edited by Timothy J. McGee, with A.G. Rigg and David N Klausner (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996), particularly its chapters on Anglo-Latin, French Latin, Spanish Latin, Portuguese Latin, Italian Latin, German Latin, and Netherlands Latin.

  26. Giuseppe says:

    I had 4 years of Latin in high school. The first two years were taught by a Jesuit, and we used church Latin (a.k.a. Italian). (Hilarious old guy who refused to let us decline ‘deus’ in the plural, because there is one and only one God!) The last two years were taught by the Greek teacher, and the classical Latin we used was essentially Greek.

    The conversation reminds me of this video on different pronunciations of English:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kVWtdQHKMc

  27. WGS says:

    I willingly accept and use the pronunciation system specified in the Liber Usualis – unless otherwise directed by a chorus or choir director.

  28. germangreek says:

    Sorry, Chris G-Z and pelerin, but Caesar’s bold (written) declaration came upon his conquest of Pontus, not Britannia.

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