Friday, 13 April 2007

Speaking Latin

I picked a funny little book from my bookshelf yesterday; 'Latin in Church: The history of its pronunciation', written in 1934 by F. Brittain, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, and University Lecturer in Medieval Latin. My edition is a 1955 reprint.

It is an entertaining tract, much of it concentrating on the 'battle' between the classical pronunciation and the 'italian' pronunciation of the Victorian Catholic Church. Brittain notes that in the 1870s, a new pronunciation was introduced to Oxford and Cambridge by those who sought classical authenticity - rather than the flat 'english' pronunication that had been regularly used in this country. This new pronunciation occasioned controversy in the Catholic Church, where the Ultramontane movement had been encouraging an italianate pronunciation. Cardinal Manning, famously, tried hard - but with mixed success - to adopt an italian pronunciation. Wilfred Meynell writes:

Like all ecclesiastics he had acquired what is considered to be the italian pronunication, and had even taken evident pains to be very Italian indeed, as an act of homage to the Italian conditions of modern English Catholicism ... But the English tongue made of his Latin the most British thing conceivable, all the same. I never heard him speak French, but I know precisely the kind he must have had.

Despite the enthusiasm for italianate pronunciation, Brittain notes that the new 'classical' pronunication was gleefully taken up by some 'Roman Catholic clergy who, about the beginning of the twentieth century, had the greatest enthusiasm for it.' He continues:

..the rhythmical, rhymed verses of St Thomas Aquinas and Thomas of Celano, with their homely, half-romance vocabulary, were sung to the accents of Virgil, Horace and Cicero.

The main champions of the classical pronunication were the monasteries, notably Downside and Ampleforth. But it intruded into other spheres as well (and here is the reason for today's posting!):

The new (ie classical) pronunciation was used by some, though not all, of the clergy at Westminster Cathedral in 1903. Its use was never officially adopted there, neither did it survive very long. One priest, however, who heard it there always retained the clearest recollection of its effect on him. He had always been brought up on the Italian pronunication, and had not come into contact with the classical pronunication before. .. Consequently, when he heard some of the clergy singing in sighcula sighculorum, his first impression was that this must be a Cockney pronunciation of Latin; and when the preacher went up into the pulpit - it was a feast of the Blessed Virgin - he expected to hear him describe Our Lady as 'Our Lidy'.

I cannot imagine that Cardinal Vaughan, who wanted his Cathedral to be more Roman than Rome itself, would have tolerated any deviation from the italian norm. Today, both clergy and choir use a thoroughly Italian pronunciation. For me, this has been a fascinating journey, having studied Classics at University, and been subject to ever-new theories of authentic pronunciation. I went up as a new student pronouncing the name of the great Roman politician Cicero as 'Sisero', but was at once informed that I should be saying 'Kikero'. Before I left, the latest theories had us saying 'Tsi-tsero'. It was something of a relief to go to Rome where the italian pronunciation had the double benefit of making sense, and sounding lovely. So I gratefully enunciated 'Chee-chero'!

It has always thrilled me to hear an Italian speak Latin; it brings the language to life in a way that laboured pronunciations, even if more accurate, cannot. That italianate latin it is not the original pronunciation is implied, to me, by the Italian inability to pronounce two consonants back-to-back. Hence, a small 'vowel' sound is inserted, as in 'benedicat-eh-vos' or 'pater-eh-noster'. All in the very good cause of euphony, surely an important concept in the liturgy. I recall my delight at hearing an Italian guide in the Vatican Museums telling her band of tourists that there would never be another Pope called Sixtus because 'Sixtus sextus' sounded far too brutto!

As Peter Jones notes in 'The Intelligent person's Guide to Classics', the pronunciation of Latin arouses fierce passions. How true. I was requested one evening by a visiting and indignant choir to adopt a more 'english' pronunciation for my celebration of Mass, as the music being sung was the very native Byrd and Tallis. Naturally I declined, hinting that I was outraged at the suggestion. In fact, I was very amused. But perhaps my refusal is bolstered by more than aesthetics: Peter Jones notes that church pronunciation 'is nothing but the modern Italian that Pope Pius X tried to impose upon the Church in 1912'. I've not managed to find the document to which he refers, but if any readers know of it and can point me in its direction, I shall ensure it is enshrined in the Cathedral sacristy!


Anonymous said...

Monsignor, this is one of the most delightful and interesting entries you have written.

Your observation about "Cockney Latin" reminded me of the late Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, who had a most pronounced "Bahston Irish" accent that was only enhanced by his raspy, foghorn voice.

Even though I was a freshman in high school at the time, I can still remember his voice at President Kennedy's funeral as he said ever so slowly:
"Reequeeamb ayternamb dahna ayeees Dahmeenayyyy..." (amb as in lamb)

Anonymous said...

I had the interesting and wonderful experience of being received into the church whilst studying Classics at Oxford. I was therefore brought up on Kikero and "Wayny Weedy Weeky", and so had to mentally make quite an adjustment when confronted with the high italianate pronunciation at the Oxford Oratory. After receiving a few odd looks I got there in the end, I'm pleased to say.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if the cathedral choristers have to cope with two types of Latin: 'Classical' Latin when at school and 'Italianate' Latin when in choir?

Mark Langham said...

Dear Ivo

Indeed they do have to cope with two pronunciations - the choir school pupils put on a Classical Latin play, eloquently enunciated in classical pronunciation, each term!

There can be confusion. I keep an ear out in the Cathedral for 'aitches' - the 'h' being a feature of classical pronunciation, but never being pronounced in Italian. Any hint of an aspirant before 'haec' or 'hodie' is immediately reported back to the Master of Music!

John the organist said...

How very interesting! I too was brought up on "Weni weedy weeky". Our Latin teacher at school would say that we should sing "Adests fideles" at the carol service to stop the parents joining in as Latin is the language of the angels. He was the most sarcastic man I have ever met! What is important is the vowel sounds and the rolled rs! Cardinal Cushing clearly couldn't do that!

Anonymous said...

I'm doing a Latin course at the moment (didn't start learning Latin till I was 40!) and agree that you have to make a mental adjustment between the two types of pronunciation. I think the church Latin sounds more elegant and natural than all those hard "c"s in classical Latin

Unknown said...

I remember rebelliously using classical pronunciation at Mass as soon as I started Latin lessons at school.

However, though I also studied Classics at university, I've quite happily settled into using 'saycula' instead of 'sighcula' in church contexts. I still use classical pronunciation in all other contexts, though.

Jude said...

Fr. Mark: I'm thinking that the instruction to Latin pronunciation the "Italian way" might be found in Pius X's 1903 motu proprio on the restoration of church music where he states it must be sung in the language of the church (Latin). Oddly, the document was entitled Tra le Sollecitudini, and while I'm not language expert, I believe that's Italian, no? He actually wrote the document itself in the vulgate. At any rate, I have not read this entire document, so I cannot be sure that there is any reference to Latin pronunciation's just a guess. If I come across it, I'll pass it along.

Anonymous said...

I should have added that Cardinal Cushing, whose Latin pronunciation was "unique", truly believed every word he spoke. And while Latin purists must have cringed when they heard his delivery, I'm sure God understood. His celebration of the Mass was very deliberate. I was just old enough in the 60s--before the change into English--to realize that more than a few priest mumbled their way through the Latin as fast as possible. There were liturgical abuses even in the "good old days".

S.R. Fraczek said...

Wonderful article. For those who want some London Latin, try the strange classical/pop crossover group, Libera. "libera may dominay day mortay..."

It's interesting you picked up on 'aitches'. I know that it's banned at the start but what about in the middle, like in "mihi"? The director of the Schola I used to sing with in Cambridge (who had been taught by Dr Mary Berry) used to say that it should be almost "michi", with the "ch" as in the German Bach or Scottish loch...

It's a shame, in a way, that you don't do English Latin for Tallis and so on. And German Latin is great fun. But French Latin "Sahnnctuuuuuuuuuuuus" really makes me shudder, so perhaps it's for the best that you just stick to good old Italianate Latin!

Zadok the Roman said...

There's a wonderful story about when Cardinal Cushing was a newly minted bishop. Accompanied by a very precise and proper MC he made a blunder at the start of the formula for an episcopal blessing:
Sit nomen domini benedictus.
The MC was horrified and whispered a correction into Cushing's ear:
tum, tum, tum!
In response to which Cushing bellowed into his mircophone tum, tum, tum!
BTW, I've heard some fairly unusual blends of Italianite and classical Latin at the Oratory on occasion.

Mark Langham said...


Here, an aitch in the middle of a word has the hard 'c' (= 'k') added, so that 'nihil mihi deerit' is pronounced 'nikil miki deerit'!

Similarly, a double 'cc' is pronounced 'ksh' so that 'ecce' becomes 'ek-she'; 'accende' becomes 'ak-shende'.

I remember the great Dr Mary Berry well from University days. Incidentally, grace in my college was (and still is) given in a hideous flat english accent:

"Beny-dyke Doh-my-ny no-bice, et donice tuice ..."

Anonymous said...

How does anyone know how classical Latin was pronounced since there has been something of a shortage of classical Romans for quite a few centuries? I learned to aspirate the "h" at the start and anywhere else in a Latin word. With regard to the pronunciation of double "c", I was taught, in minor seminary back in the early '60's, that the first "c" would have more of a "t" sound. So "accepit" would sound like "aht-chay-pit". I am fairly certain that my teacher was born and educated many years before the fall of Rome, so I am sticking with him .

Anonymous said...

I use a quadruple standard for Latin pronunciation:

1. As a sometime Latin teacher, I insisted that my class use the classical pronunciation--because we were reading classical literature. I explained to my students that although they might feel silly saying "Wayne-y, Weedy, Week-y," that pronunciation was no sillier than our English "wine" instead of the German "Wein."

2. In church and at Catholic prayer, Italian-style "church" Latin should be used.

3. But I'm also a medievalist specializing in medieval English literature. Since Latin was pronounced in the Middle Ages the way the speaker's vernacular tongue was pronounced, it seems appropriate to give an English pronunciation to the medieval Latin used in England. That is, a Chaucerian pronunciation. The medieval spelling of certain Latin words provides a clue to their medieval sound: "Jhesus," not "Iesus" for Jesus, "michi" for "mihi," and so forth.

Thus, with respect to the beautiful 13th-century hymn sung by Nicholas in the Miller's Tale, "Angelus ad virginem," I pronounce the "g"'s like the "g"'s in "angel" and "virgin." In this line from the hymn, "Demulcens inquit Ave," I believe the "c" should be pronounced like "s." You'll note that the Tallis Singers and the Hillyard Ensemble seem to follow this rule.

4. Finally, we come to Latin legal terms that have made their way into English. They should always be given a modern English pronunciation: "hay-beas corpus," "inter vive-os trust," and so forth.

I think maneuvering all four pronunciations is great fun. I always find it a bit strange to hear my fellow medievalists use classical pronunciation when quoting from medieval Latin texts whose authors would have scratched their heads in puzzlement on hearing, "Iesu dul-kis memoria."

Mark Langham said...

Fr Stephen
Of course, no one can be sure of classical pronunciation, hence the ever-changing theories.

However, there are certain clues in classical poetry, where metre was a great factor. Thus, for instance, we know that the 'a' of 'Pater' was short - and not long (as usually pronounced ibn Church). Occasionally there are rhymes, or other clues in the text, which point in the right direction.

The fact that English has 'wine', while romance languages have 'vin, vino' etc implies that our pronunciation of 'v' preserves the earlier latin pronunciation - where the 'v' was pronounced originally as 'w' (as in 'weni, widi, wiki'. After the Romans left Britain, the continental pronunciation changed to 'v', as preserved in the romance languages. Just another little clue...

Anonymous said...

Spoken Latin is certainly a bit of a minefield although good fun, as I think readers of this blog would agree. One of my most terrifying experiences (horresco referens) was having to give an annual after dinner speech at my college, in Latin, enumerating the memorable events of the college year in a humorous manner. On that occasion - particularly in the presence of one or two notable classicists - I stuck firmly to the classical norm, albeit that the members of the college's choral foundation winced a little.

In practice the only way to get through it was to make up cue cards in advance so that my friends present would know when to laugh at my rather lame Latin jokes. The amount of wine consumed ensured that they did their job rather better than I did mine, I fear.

Phil said...

"...the ecclesiastical authorities... decided to try and spread the traditional pronunciation of one country, Italy, to the rest of the world. Pope Pius X expressed this wish in a letter to the archbishop of Bourges in 1912... (W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina, The Pronunciation of Classical Latin, Cambridge University. Pg 108)..."


Can't see the letter on the Vatican website


John the organist said...

I have been enjoying again the CD "Resurrexit" of Easter Day Eucharist with wonderful Latin singing and amazing thrilling organ playing! And the fervour of the sung responses is moving! Long may it continue!

Samothraki Permaculture said...
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