QUAERITUR: Was Latin the “vernacular”?

From a seminarian:

A brother seminarian and I recently attended one night of a parish mission of sorts led by a renowned Catholic musician. In one tangent mentioning the newly corrected translation of the Missal, he stated how the Mass in Latin came to be through a translation of the Greek text to the language of the day – the vernacular “street Latin.” He went on to say that those who love the Latin texts and prefer them to the vernacular translations miss the point, since the Latin only came about as it was the vernacular of that time. My fellow seminarian, knowing my affinity for the old rites and for Latin in general, asked me if I knew of that history. I was only able to respond by saying that though there was some truth to what he said, the musician’s notion was a bit too simplistic and even dismissive, but I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate my position better. Can you please shed some light on this?

P.S. I have to give credit to the musician for saying that he thinks the Latin Mass (whether he meant EF or OF, not sure) should be used more. He also did not bash the new translation, but did say there was a need for good musical settings. He was fair, but maybe just wrong.

The musician is sticking to the old line about vernacular which all good scholars long since grew out of.

Ut brevis, the Latin that was adopted for the Roman liturgy was not at all like the Latin that was spoken in the streets.  The Latin used for liturgy was elevated and stylized, redolent of the Latin used in ancient Roman religion, law and philosophy.   The man in the street, hearing the Latin of the basilica, would have perhaps heard most of the words before, but their meanings would have been a real stretch.   An analogy would be the perhaps the internal reaction of your average person who has never been to live theatre suddenly hearing the opening act of King Lear.   He would recognize most of the words, but the sound of it would be strange, the meaning of even familiar words obscure.  It would take a while for his ear to adjust.

Another point that must be considered is that the Latin of ancient worship has a different impact on the mind than the Greek of ancient worship.  The Roman Latin of worship tends to be spare and sober while Greek is involved and effusive.  Languages are not all equal in their impact on the listener and speaker.  Something about Latin was preferable to Greek in the minds of those who had command of both languages.

Fr. Lang of the Oratory has done some work on this lately.  Also, an older study you might be able to find in your seminary library is by the late, great scholar Christine Mohrmann.

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  1. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    And if it were, so what? What’s his point? Is he saying that our worshiping in English is the equivalent of St. Clement worshiping in Latin? Is he saying that we needn’t have scruples about using hieratic language?

    The far more important reference to make is the example of God Himself on earth. Christ, as has been said in these pages before, prayed and worshiped in Hebrew, and an antique and poetical version of Hebrew to boot, and not in his Aramaic vernacular. That is the metric by which we should be measuring our actions, not the use of any particular version of Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Old Slavonic, nor any other language that came later.

  2. Archicantor says:

    From Christine Mohrmann’s Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character (1957), p. 26 (here speaking of early liturgical Greek):

    Thus we see how, from the very earliest times, Christians sought for prayer forms which were far removed, in their style and mode of expression, from the language of everyday life. This tendency was combined with a conscious striving after sacral forms of expression. Already at an early period the East did not disdain to seek a rapprochement with certain profane literary traditions, but, on the other hand, the Easterners never abandoned the connection with the biblical style which characterized the earliest prayers.

    Now, on the Latin Canon of the Mass (pp. 59-60):

    The vocabulary of the Canon, which, generally speaking, bears a strong Christian biblical imprint, shows a number of juridical elements, as for example, in the enumeration: benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque. This rhythmically balanced flow of words, which shows an almost juridical precision, was however, as a stylistic device, not an innovation of the Christian prayer. We have already come across this same sacral style in the primitive pagan prayers of the Roman national religion. This monumental verbosity coupled with juridical precision, which is so well suited to the gravitas Romana but which also betrays a certain scrupulosity with regard to the higher powers, was the typical form of expression of the old Roman prayer.

    So in other words, Christian liturgical Latin consciously imitated the style (but not the content) of pagan liturgical Latin. Mohrmann adduces many more examples. She summarizes on pp. 60-61:

    A sacral style has been created which links up with the old Roman prayer of the official Roman cult which had survived throughout the centuries more as a decorum of the Empire than as a religious element, and which the Emperor Augustus had tried to revive. This style had become, as it were, the symbol of Roman dignity, and as such it influenced the Christian tradition. … [A] remarkable combination of Romanitas and Christianitas which throughout the centuries will remain its chief characteristic.

    In short, liturgical Latin is not vernacular but hieratic. I cannot resist pointing out that English, too, has a hieratic dialect, which you will soon be getting a chance to hear in your local Anglican Personal Ordinariate church. For all his faults, Dr. Cranmer got the measure of liturgical Latin. Compare benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque with the following passage from the “Prayer of Consecration” in the Book of Common Prayer, which I’ll admit is employed to make a rather different point!

    … who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world …

    (And to avoid all occasion for controversy, let’s take as read the full belief of Rome-bound Anglicans in the Sacrifice of the Mass, whatever Cranmer himself may have thought.)

  3. Konichiwa says:

    I’m attending a conference soon where a well known Catholic musician will be present. This information may be handy. Thanks!

  4. Ioannes Andreades says:

    I have to admit to concerns about Fr. Lang’s description of the situation in Late Antiquity. There is a lot that we don’t know, and so pronouncements must be provisional and qualified. For instance, we have very few pagan prayers in Latin from the fourth and fifth centuries, prayers to which Romans would have been accustomed from birth. I have a Hindu friend who never studied Sanskrit but was better able to understand the Sanskrit prayers of a priest, though I had studied the language for severy years. To what degree were Christian prayers modeled on these pagan one?

    We also have precious little by way of writings of the semi-literate and partially educated Romans of this period. I also have to admit that I don’t always see an insurmountable stylistic difference between the sermons of Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome (not meant only for educated Christians) and the language found in the canon, collects, and the ordinary.

    I will remind people that it used to be the case that scripture scholars thought that that the Greek of the New Testament was rife with Semiticisms. As more and more Greek papyri have been unearthed from non-Semitic linguistic areas, the more New Testament Greek seems to resemble the language in these papyri. Scholarship does its best with the evidence provided, but we have to consider the quality and quantity of the evidence.

  5. albinus1 says:

    I’ve never received a straightforward reply when I point out that, as a devout Jew, Jesus presumably prayed and read the Scriptures in Hebrew — which, in the 1st century, was a non-vernacular liturgical/scriptural language.

    Another point that many monoglot Anglophones tend to forget is that there is a difference between being able to speak a language on a daily basis, and being able to understand it when it is spoken — an experience surely familiar to the many people throughout history who have lived their lives in regions where different ethnic groups and languages co-exist. They may be able to understand some languages far better than they able to speak them. While many people in the West may not have spoken Latin, or at least literary Latin, as their day-to-day speech, it is likely that many people were able to understand when they needed to. After all, it was the language in which much official business was carried out.

    Greek koine was not the daily vernacular of many early Christians, whose daily language may have been Aramaic or a variety of other local languages. But it was a language commonly understood by most people who traveled or did business in the eastern Mediterranean, which is why it made sense for the books of the New Testament to be written in it.

  6. I would expect the Mediterranean koine Greek of the Empire to be rife with Semiticisms, because all the Semite lands (pretty much) touched the Mediterranean and were thus heavily into trade.

    Look at American English. Is it not rife with Yiddishisms, among other loanwords and scarfed grammatical structures? If you go to New York, is the common speech of the people not even more rife with them? So why wouldn’t Alexandrian Greek (with Alexandria a port town, and with a fairly large Jewish population) be at least as full of Aramaicisms, Phoenicianisms, Carthaginianisms, Syriacisms, Arabicisms, and Maltesisms? And so it would probably be, all around “Our Sea”, as the Romans called the Mediterranean.

  7. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Although some of the linguistic phenomena might have been Semitic in origin, there are plenty of other explanations that are at least as if not more likely. Most of these “Semiticisms” are structural (syntax, grammar) rather than lexical (vocabulary), which would make a simple “cross-polination” explanation more unlikely. Moreover, it can’t be said that the diction of the the writers of the New Testament demonstrates that they came from Semitic speaking areas, since much of their language is much like the Greek elsewhere.

  8. dad29 says:

    the Latin that was adopted for the Roman liturgy was not at all like the Latin that was spoken in the streets. The Latin used for liturgy was elevated and stylized, redolent of the Latin used in ancient Roman religion, law and philosophy

    Same-o for the current Greek Orthodox liturgical Greek and the Hebrew used at most synagogue services. Not daily speech by a long-shot.

  9. Willebrord says:

    Hmm, we’ve had some debates on this on the house all the time. While I had read that liturgical Latin was never like street Latin, most here are under the impression that Latin was simply the vernacular of the day.

  10. Andrew says:

    It would be difficult to unwind somehow the history and to explain the process of inculturation whereby the Latin of pre-christian Rome became the language of the Church. But the end-result is easy to see: Latin words aquired a richer meaning aptly expressing the realities of supernatural life in Christ: words such as “gratia” which already had a profound meaning in pre-christian Latin was usurped by Christians to express the mystery of the sanctifying grace. This was not a process of translating from Greek or from any other language. Instead, it was a process of inculturation, whereby Latin speaking Christians found a way to express the mysteries of Faith through their language. To this day English has not gone through such a process: it simply borrowed the Latin words as they were: hence we have “resurrection, grace, sacrament, confirmation, confession, revelation, indulgence, etc.” the list goes on and on. The idea that first century Latin speaking Christians needed to translate existing Greek texts into Latin is ludicrous. The process of transformation was simultaneous in different cultures where the Gospel was preached.

  11. The Cobbler says:

    So, am I understanding it aright if I say that the Mass should preferably be translated/developed into Shakespeare-esque English? Without getting rid of the Latin Mass, of course; we didn’t tell the Byzantines to stop using Greek, as far as I know of, and I gather (though y’all must pardon my not knowing much specifically about it) that some Churches still exist that never left Aramaic.

    The main problem as I see it is whether anyone in the English-speaking world besides myself _wants_ royal English; since the democratic revolutions, such highmindedness rubs almost everybody wrong. It shouldn’t be that way; as Chesterton pointed out, we should have said, “You are as good as the king of England,” rather than, “The king of England is no better than you,” but what’s happened to the culture has happened. How to restore meaty vitality to a culture living on cabbage and water because it’s supposedly healthier, that is a question — or, to reference Shakespeare still more: what can answer the culture’s own question, “To be, or not to be…”

    But then, I think I know already. After all, this http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/re-inheriting-the-disinherited-mind.html sounds in the end just like Father’s point about the marshal plan. Anyone such as myself who would like to see a properly royal English Mass must first bring vitality back to the culture through the Latin — or through one of the other ancient rites.

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Father Z has written, “Something about Latin was preferable to Greek in the minds of those who had command of both languages.”

    Was one such thing not that it was the first – or second – language of their numerous less learned, not (very good) Greek-speaking brethren in Rome, Italy, North Africa, Gaul, etc.?

    How early were the earliest Latin Psalm (and other Scriptural) translations? St. Jerome started by trying to make a better Latin translation from the Septuagint, before extending his studies and efforts to the Hebrew, if I recall correctly.

    At the earliest period (and presumably to some extent until the generation after pagan worship was completely outlawed by Theodosius in 381) any Latin-speaking pagan convert would have had direct experience of state-sanctioned/-required ‘hieratic’ Latin. And what classes or individuals in what numbers would have had no experience of official/legal Latin?

    Obviously lots of features of Italian, French, Spanish, etc. dialects derived from Latin different from that used in law and liturgy (pagan or Christian), but all sorts of “street Latin” and formal ‘registers’ and ‘styles’ of Latin are together in some significant sense “vernacular Latin”.

    None of this is meant to neglect the application of The Cobbler’s words – “what’s happened to the culture has happened” – with respect to Latin liturgical culture. I would suggest, that anyone comparing, for example, the Latin EF Easter Lessons and Propers with however good a translation will see richnesses in the Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek sources which are not equally clear in the English. However one evaluates that Latin richness, it is not easily translated.

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