QUAERITUR: Do I have to use ecclesiastical pronunciation of Latin?

From a reader:

If I am to pray in Latin, how beholden am I to the regulated ecclesiastical pronunciation?

I ask because I have a hobby that involves some pronunciation in classical Latin. Learning two pronunciations of the same language with my limited natural foreign language gifts is daunting enough that it would likely dissuade me from the enterprise.

I don’t have others with whom I would be prayi101ng, and therefore no personal leadership in the matter.

First, unless you are a cleric or religious with the obligation to pray the Church’s official prayer, which is in Latin, you don’t have to pray in Latin.

“But Father! But Father!”, some priests and religious may be saying.  “We don’t have to pray the office in Latin! We had Vatican II!”


Sacrosanctum Concilium:

101. 1. In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office. But in individual cases the ordinary has the power of granting the use of a vernacular translation to those clerics for whom the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly. The vernacular version, however, must be one that is drawn up according to the provision of Art. 36.

Okay… I’m just being difficult. I am just irritated with people who invoke Vatican II for all sorts of things, but neglect things like this.

Back to the question at hand.

No, if you are alone, I don’t think you are bound to use ecclesiastical pronunciation.  Go ahead and use classical pronunciation.

If you are praying with others, use the ecclesiastical.

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  1. Thomas S says:

    Father Z,

    It might be interesting to hear a few examples in a podcast of the same sentence spoken with classical and ecclesiastical pronunciation.

  2. Re: podcast — Yeah, that sounds like a fun idea! You can add in English Latin pronunciation for bonus points!

    Re: original poster — If you can find a nest of German-pronunciation Latin speakers, you won’t find much difference from the classical pronunciation. This often counts for Latin-singing music groups, also.

    The Holy Father says Mass with ecclesiastical/Italian pronunciation because that’s his role as bishop of Rome; but every so often, he’ll have a brain-typo and say something in classical/German pronunciation by mistake. So don’t feel bad about it, if you occasionally slip up.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Oh my goodness, this is a huge problem for me. I am in a choir which uses the ecclesiastical Latin (which I grew up with). The choir I was in before this one used the classical pronunciations, primarily because most of the members had graduated from the same college where they had taken classical Latin as part of the core course. What is really difficult, is that when I lived in Canada, people had French Latin accents, and when I lived in England, we used the British version of classical Latin in the choirs, which is sui generis in Europe.

    What is so hard for me are the choir directors, who rightly so, insist on one form. I slip into the classical all time and I am corrected, of course. Part of the problem is that I taught first and second year classical Latin for many years. I am completely sympathetic with the problem and will probably deal with it all my life.

  4. Mitchell NY says:

    This is an interesting post. A podcast would be great. Could someone explain, in a simple fashion, what the major differences in pronunciation are? Would a regular lay person catch these differences?

  5. The sad part is, despite the reality that you have pointed out from Vatican II – the actual Vatican II, not its spirit – few seminaries today don’t require Latin as part of the essential formation for the priesthood, and many don’t even offer Latin as an optional course.

  6. Jaceczko says:

    I don’t speak as a churchman, but as a teacher of Latin. I don’t think it makes any difference which pronunciation you use. The so-called “ecclesiastical” pronunciation (i.e., pretending it is Italian) [That isn’t quite fair, since the pronunciation of Latin shifted in the first centuries of the Church’s life.] is easier on the tongue—the very reason why the pronunciation changed into it. So when I pray in Latin I use the so-called “ecclesiastical” pronunciation.

    •When I teach, though, I use the so-called “classical” pronunciation because the retention of a wider range of distinct phonemes and diphthongs assists the student in learning the morphology of the language, and, thus, the language as a whole. [I wholly agree. I would teach in classical pronunciation.] But fluency in active use of the language (which the recitation of a scripted prayer is not) encourages the easier-on-the-tongue modern pronunciation.

    Again, I speak not as a churchman but as someone interested in gaining fluency in the use of the language. And one who only has 2¢ to contribute anyway… :)

  7. Mitchell –

    One difference is that in classical Latin, there is no such thing as a soft “c” sound, nor a soft “g” sound. The “ae” dipthong in classical Latin is pronounced “ai” rather than as a long “a.” So something like “Regina Caeli” in classical Latin would be significantly different than in ecclesial Latin. In classical, it would sound “Regina Kailee” with a hard “g” as opposed to “Rejina Chaylee.”

    There are a few other differences, but that is just one demonstration.

  8. Jaceczko says:

    Mitchell NY, the salient differences are:

    c’s are always as if k’s in classical Latin: “Caesar” is “KY – sar” and “caelum” is “KY – lum”
    in the modern pronunciation, as in Italian, the c’s are soft when followed by a “light” vowel (e or i or diphthongs including the same: “caelum” is “CHAY – lum”.

    This also illustrates the difference of the æ diphthong: “EYE” versus “AYE (rhymes with “hey!”)”.

    g’s just like c’s: not all hard, but soft when followed by light vowels.

    In general, the modern pronunciation just pretends like the language is Italian. Because, after all, Italian is just

    late late late late late late late

    Latin, anyway.

  9. Andrew says:

    Eggs over easy w. Ecclesiastical pronunciation http://bit.ly/dTiWMP

  10. wmeyer says:

    I wonder how many of our clergy simply ignore SC on this point. My own pastor has stated plainly that a) he had no training in Latin at seminary, and b) he doesn’t like Latin. The latter reminds me of Fr. Corapi: “it doesn’t matter if you don’t like praying the Rosary — just do it!

  11. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Having grown up with hearing the ecclesiastical Latin in church, following in the missal, singing in the children’s choir, I didn’t find it difficult to switch back and forth while taking three years of classical Latin in high school (a Catholic girls’ academy). That’s perhaps the difference. These days Latin isn’t taught for the most part, ecclesiastical or classical; and for years few people heard either. The ear is trained and the mind adjusts. Isn’t it the same if you speak foreign languages? My mind adjusts to Spanish pronunciation (Catalan or Mexican) or to French pronunciation (French Canadian is different) and I’m sure others do as well, so I guess I really don’t know what the difficulty is?

  12. gloriainexcelsis says:

    I’m sorry. My comment sounds a bit smug. I don’t mean it to be. I don’t think I’m any more adept at language than anyone else. It was just an observation.

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Dear gloriainexcelsis,

    God bless you, but you do have a gift for languages. I do not. I learned a bit of Catalan Spanish and none of the minorities from the south of Mexico understood anything I said and I gave up after taking a course in more conversational and less academic Spanish. My college French, which I can read fairly well using, even philosophy, was laughed at in France, and I would be ignored in Quebec, I am sure. As to Latin, some of us get into habits and automatically revert to the hard cs and gs. No, you did not sound smug, just gifted.

  14. disco says:

    I had Latin in high school and we were told to pronounce the v’s like w’s as well as the hard c business already mentioned. I personally never like pronouncing the Latin like it was German. I must say though it’s not rocket science to use both as appropriate. Sounds to me like the petitioner just wants to be different.

  15. Capitana says:

    To Disco, actually in German you pronounce w like v so when I took classical Latin, that was really hard to switch.

    After I took Latin, I took Italian and had several trips to Italy before I joined the Catholic Church so sliding into singing Latin in the choir wasn’t too hard, but I learned the Ave Maria on my own so singing that is hard for the nostrae. I have to actually stop and think about it.
    I have learned other bits of Latin on my own so I am not sure about classical or Church pronunciation, but I am sure God understands us in whatever language we speak.

  16. Geremia says:

    Didn’t Pope St. Pius X demand that we use the ecclesiastical, Italianate pronunciation?

  17. asperges says:

    Church Latin sounds odd with “classical” pronunciation (there are several “classical pronunciations” but the Germanic hard G and C, no “V” and with ae diphthong pronounced and “I” not “ey”) is probably the norm.

    “Arma wirumque kano” is fine, but “Per omnia sy-kula sy-kulorum” is not. The Liber Usualis (Solesmes) quotes Pius X’s (I think) wish that more or less Italianate pronunciation is followed. In the UK that’s what happens but European variants kick in abroad. French pre-Pius X – still used in some places – is just Latin pronounced like French and I note recent classical recordings of XVII century church music, such as Charpentier or Lully, is now always pronounced that way.

    Anglicans, or the BBC, using old Oxford “classical” still refer to the “Tee Dee-um” and the Nunc (rhyming with “monk”) Dimittis and no-one anywhere would refer to the “Manyeeficat” always Mag- (hard G).

    With the best will in the world, no-one really knows how Latin was pronounced, Italianate for Church Latin is recommended and the nicest on the ear, and the most familiar, for what is, after all, mostly late or mediaeval Latin.

  18. Jaceczko says:

    Dear Father,

    Regarding my comment at 12:24, I only said that the ecclesiastical pronunciation “pretends” that Latin is Italian to express as briefly as possible what was meant by the term. I agree that it sounded somewhat condescending; I didn’t mean to be.

    Of course you’re right about the pronunciation changing from a very early date. I think it’s especially evident in the regional differences in orthography in the earliest manuscripts, starting in the fourth century with the shifting of the gravitational center of the Empire to Constantinople, the subsequent loss of intercourse between western provinces, and then again with the Gothic and Lombard invasions of Italy in the fifth and sixth centuries.

    As a tangent, I consider modern Latin and modern Italian to be two dialects of the same language, just as modern Greek and Church Greek are. Or modern Hebrew and “church” Hebrew (or even, in a less pronounced sense—but we’re getting there—the KJV and modern English). Just a personal hypothesis that would be interesting to check.

    I also suppose that in the 1960s and 70s, when Latin stopped being used by the Church for the most part (compared to before), and became more of a specialist language, it was therefore less subject to contamination (in the technical, not the pejorative sense :) ). Then again starting in the last decade with the multiplication of these conventicula in the United States, and especially with the work of modern secular Latinists at Kentucky and Notre Dame, I expect we will see it diverge even more. Or would, if our life span were long enough for us to see major linguistic developments. :)

  19. I suspect that it probably is easier to learn classical Latin in school and then sing ecclesiastical Latin in choir (at the same time of life), because your brain probably establishes that you say it differently depending on the occasion. We do this sort of accent/formality/occasion shift all the time when speaking English, after all.

    Also, I suspect that I would have had fewer problems if I’d been singing Latin every week! Constant reinforcement works better than trying to remember it again once every month or so.

  20. Jaceczko says:

    Dear asperges,

    in response to your comment: “With the best will in the world, no-one really knows how Latin was pronounced”

    If you are referring to classical Latin, the scholarly consensus among classicists (to the extent that there is one) leans more towards the claims of W. Sidney Allen’s VOX LATINA, which is positive.

    Of course it’s always possible to doubt the positive claim, but there is after all quite a lot of evidence: epigraphical, papyrological, and in the early comedies.

    Regards, and happy Sunday!

  21. Random Friar says:

    If you are praying in common and your voice would not make or break the public prayer, I’d say you definitely can always follow along sotto voce.

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    Those of us who started with the Anglican pronunciation (which as asperges notes is different), then took Classical Latin in high school and college, then learned Legal Latin in law school (which is based on Anglican pronunciation but sometimes startling – as in when a court or legislature adjourns sine die and the guy with the gavel says something that sounds like SIGN-ee DIE (as in lie down and die).) Either classical or Italianate pronunciation would be laughed at in a courtroom.

    When I began learning the Italianate pronunciation I was needless to say totally confused! I am settling down now though.

  23. James Joseph says:

    Is it fair to say that I use the Argentina pronunciation of Latin out of the sheer fact that I have accidently learned to speak Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese?

  24. tobiasmurphy says:

    This takes me back. I had 8 years of Latin. My high school Latin teacher insisted that we use classical pronunciation EXCEPT for “v,” because she refused to accept that Julius Caesar, her idol, ever said anything remotely sounding like “weeni, weedi, weeki.”

    To this day, I ALWAYS pronounce “v” as we know it in modern English.

  25. Brooklyn says:

    A couple of months ago, a very good priest gave a homily in which he used a Latin phrase. He apologized for his pronunciation, saying he did not know Latin. That seemed very strange to me to hear a Catholic priest say he did not know Latin, but I realize that is actually the norm.

    I don’t believe Latin is taught in the seminaries any more. So how could they be expected to say the Office in Latin? I’m just happy now if I know a priest actually does say the Office every day, because I fear there are many who don’t say it in Latin, English or any other language.

  26. Daniel Latinus says:

    I had a professor at Loyola in Chicago who told us that until the middle 1950s, the Jesuits had their own pronunciation of Latin, based on the German/Classical pronunciation. (E.g., ecce was pronounced “ek-say” or Regina Caeli was pronounced “regeenah say-lee”.) Quite properly, Rome condemned this heresy, and the Jesuits were ordered to start using the correct (i.e. Ecclesiastical) pronunciation. The professor said that he had used the Ecclesiastical, Classical, and Jesuit pronunciations during his career, and that he might lapse into any of the three pronunciations during class.

    An Irish priest I knew told us a story from his childhood. He had gone to confession at a Jesuit church, and as a penance the priest told him to “say three “regeenah say-lee”s. The boy left the confessional, went home, and wondered what a “regeenah say-lee” was. So the boy, anxious to say his penance, approached his parish priest, and asked, “Father, what’s a “regeenah say-lee”?” And the parish priest replied, “I see you’ve been confessing by the Jesuits.”

  27. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    It is interesting to hear the simple differences in Gregorian chant recordings from different countries or periods (which reminds me to relisten to the only extant recordings of a castrato for his late-19th-c. pronunciation, and also to the recording of Leo XIII for his!) – and to hear the different ‘historically reconstructed’ pronunciations by various performers of Early Music (where, e.g., I ran into at least some controversy whether Charpentier should be sung ‘Frenchly’ or ‘ecclesiastically’).

    I remember my history teacher telling us that when George I came to the throne, they hoped to get around the language barrier by speaking Latin – only to shipwreck on the pronunciation barrier!

  28. jarthurcrank says:

    It’s been years since I took classical Latin in high school/college, though I am young enough that old Anglican Oxford Latin was essentially discarded and so I have no familiarity with it. I recall that we were supposed to read classical poetry in terms of “long” and “short” syllables as opposed to “stressed” and “unstressed.” Was this really how such poetry was read in classical times or was this a 19th-20th century reconstruction? With the possible exception of poetry in Hendecasyllabics (Anyone for Tennyson?), these kinds of long and short syllables always sounded terrible and it was impossible to not fall back on stressed and unstressed syllables.

  29. edm says:

    Dear Gloriainexcelsis and Supertradmom,
    There is no such thing as Catalan Spanish. Catalan is a language. It is not a regional pronunciation of Spanish.

    Dear Others,
    The so-called “Anglican” pronunciation of Latin applies mostly to titles of liturgical hymns. As someone pointed out, in ordinary conversation one would hear “Let us recite the ‘Tee Deeoom'” and “Let us sing the ‘Venaytee'” rather than Te Deum or Venite, but one would not normally actually hear a choir sing that (although at Her Majesty’s coronation the choir did sing that beautiful anthem with the acclamations “Vayvat rejaeena Elizabeta!”)

  30. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    For a (reconstructed) ‘English’ pronunciation Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort (etc.) have an enjoyable recording of Greatorex’s setting of ‘Adeste fideles’.
    Not so terribly long ago, the name of the poet was pronounced ‘Dan-tee’ rather than ‘Dawn-tay’ in England, and then there’s Don ‘Kwik-zut’…
    Were all the Romance languages pronounced ‘Englishly’ at some point?

    Did other Germanic languages have something similar?

    Am I not right that hymnology played a large part in the shift from quantitative to stress accent – and the enrichment of rhyme?

  31. Mark R says:

    My high school latin pronunciation was neither ecclesiastical nor the renovated classical style of pronunciation…a little closer to an American version of the Mr. Chipps pronunciation. I later learned both styles, and I firmly believe that the pronunciation should be appropriate to the overall period or style associated with the period of the text. This would mean a no-no for classical pronunciation of ecclesiastical texts…it just comes out wr0ng, especially when sung. We once had a music director who pronounced the initial “H” when leading schola. In Church Latin, we are all cockneys.

  32. Legisperitus says:

    Certainly by the time of St. Jerome the pronunciation had shifted, since (as the late Fr. Suitbertus Siedl pointed out) he transliterated the Hebrew “shibboleth” as “scibboleth.”

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