A person in our Catholic Latin Study Group in MeWe has asked, “I’m singing in choir. We’re preparing a Latin song. Can this group help me with proper pronunciation?” I’m putting the general part of my answer into the blog for wider sharing and ease of re-use. (The specific part of the answer will occur in-group: if he wants to provide the text, I will offer to record my pronunciation.)
There are many ways to pronounce Latin, just as there are and have been many ways of pronouncing English, depending on region and era. The Church recommends the Roman pronunciation, also called “Italian Latin,” which makes sense for a number of reasons. We are the Roman Catholic Church, after all, with headquarters in Rome. The Roman pronunciation is therefore probably the most widely understood by Catholic people around the world. In addition, our pronunciation, especially when singing, should be beautiful, and the Roman pronunciation is (for the most part) beautiful.
Here is a summary of the Roman pronunciation of Latin, or what Andrew Owen calls “Italian Latin”. I’ll start with the vowels, which are of the highest importance for beautiful singing.
A as in father.
E as in Fred or feather. Not like “ay” in day.
AE and OE the same as E.
I as in pizza or as the “ee” in feet (except when it is as consonant).
Y the same as I.
O as in off, on, for, or ordinary. Not the English “long O” as in oh or open.
U as in truth.
See how easy this is, so far? There are only five distinct vowel sounds.
In singing the diphthong AU, make the A sound last almost the whole way through and blend into the U sound just before the next syllable.
Now for the consonants:
C before soft vowels (e, i, ae, oe, y) is soft as in cello or “ch” in church.
C in other positions is hard like K, as in coffee.
G before soft vowels is soft as in gelatin or “j” in jester.
GN as in Italian signor, like “ny”.
G in other positions is hard like in grant.
H is silent except, some say, in mihi, where it is pronounced as a K.
J is pronounced as the English consonant Y. Sometimes it is written as I.
R is flapped quickly with the tip of the tongue.
S is soft as in soft and miss (not “z” as in English “misery”, even in Latin miserere), except in SC before soft vowels where it is “sh”.
PH is like F, but TH is like T as in Thomas and Thames.
TI before another vowel is “ts” (e.g. ratio is pronounced “ra-tsi-o”)
T, otherwise, like English T.
X represents cs, so normally it’s the same as ks; but in XC before a soft vowel, the rule for C + soft vowel kicks in, so for example, excelsis is pronounced “ek-shel-sis”, not “eks-chel-sis”.
Z, which is pretty rare in Latin, is soft and dentalized, like “dz”.
My summary is based more or less on “Guide to Pronouncing Liturgical Latin,” pp. 314–315 in The Parish Book of Chant (which is provided as a free PDF book by the Church Music Association of America, but you can also purchase a printed book, as I eventually did), and Andrew Owen’s Italian Latin. I’m not a Latin expert.
For an excellent example of Italian Latin, listen to Friar Alessandro’s performance of Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” — note the beautiful, pure vowels! — or some of his other recordings.
As I said, there are many ways to pronounce Latin, starting with the ancient Roman way — except that even then, I’m sure there were regional differences in pronunciation and dialect and probably class differences as well, just as even today you may hear the difference between Cockney English and the language of an upper class Oxford graduate. Scholars, beginning in the Renaissance, have reconstructed the “classical” pronunciation, as spoken by Cicero and his fellow patricians. It had long and short vowels, and more diphthongs; C and G were always hard. It seems likely that both St. Augustine and St. Jerome, around 350–430, spoke or at least were aware of the classical pronunciation, but it was then beginning to fade out. The polytheistic Romans were a hard people. Christianity softened both their character and their language. For ecclesiastical texts, at least, the softening has been for the better. One of the Renaissance popes tried to restore the classical pronunciation in Gregorian chant; that idea didn’t go over so well.
As the Roman Empire in the west declined and fell (while the eastern empire spoke Greek), Latin differentiated into various regional languages which eventually became Italian, French, Spanish, etc. People who studied Latin spoke it according to their vernacular pronunciation. Thus, Italians pronounced Latin words as Italian, Germans pronounced Latin words as German, and English people pronounced Latin words as English. Eventually, with the shift of English vowels after 1650, the English pronunciation of Latin became so weird that the rest of the world could not understand it, as Andrew Owens recounts in English Latin.
In other European countries, the Latin pronunciation remained similar to the Italian, at least for the vowels, although for the Germans and the Polish, I think, there are some differences with the consonants.
Practical and Personal Considerations
The Roman or Italian pronunciation is obviously, at least, a good starting point, but how strictly should we follow it? As Father Zuhlsdorf observes, standards of good pronunciation are a fine thing, but we should relax and not get too worked up about it (“Sound Pronunciation of Church Latin vs. Spittle-Flecked Rigidity” — see also reader comments following the article).
Here are some considerations which might lead one to deviate from the “official” Roman pronunciation.
(1) Regional pronunciations, other than the modern English. ‘the Heiligenkreuz monks use the traditional German pronunciation (e.g. “c”=”ts”, “sc”=”sts”, “gn”=”gn”, i.e. not “ny”), which has been used here for centuries…. Of course, when you don’t have a traditional local pronunciation, the logical thing would be to learn the Roman one. But when you have such a traditional local pronunciation like here in Germany, wouldn’t it be more, or at least as, fitting to preserve that?’ —Gregor
(2) Locally, I’ve heard an excellent choir singing their O’s as “oh” and their E’s as “ay” in “date” and “Dayton.” Their vowels were clear, pure, and beautiful. But if you do this, be careful to avoid the diphthongs “oh-ooh” and “ay-ee” which we Americans so easily slide into. Also, it’s hard to maintain those pure sounds before R. In my schola, I will direct them to the Italian “aw” and “e”.
(3) Some English speakers object to “mihi” as “miki” because of Mickey Mouse, and some object to NG as “ny” because “Agnus Dei” then reminds them of something unmentionable. I also dislike the “ny” in general because it is just so bizarre. I am going to direct my group to pronounce the H as H, but lightly, in mihi, and probably to pronounce it always, but again, lightly. But people in our parish are used to the GN as “ny”, so we’ll probably do that. However, we’ll minimize the “ny” by prolonging the vowel before it until the last possible instant. I’m saying “probably” because this is a new group which has not yet had a rehearsal.
Incidentally, my feeling about mihi and agnus enables me to sympathize with the natively Arabic speaking Muslims who object to the word “Moslem” because it reminds them of something offensive in Arabic. I used to think, “So what? We’re speaking English, not Arabic! That shouldn’t remind you of any such thing.” But: “mihi” and “agnus” bother me, even though we’re singing Latin, not English. So now, I understand.
(4) If you’re a choir director, make whatever adaptations as needed to suit the aesthetics of the piece and the acoustics of the place. If you’re a chorister, follow the director’s instructions, unless you’ve been asked for your opinion about pronunciation; or at least make your suggestions respectfully. Directors also should be gentle.
‘Obviously, the major consideration in singing is “how the guy in charge wants us to pronounce it”. Considering the weird things one has to do to English for the sake of a desired sound, it’s not astounding that we often sing different versions of Latin from what we were taught. Mostly, I think it’s helpful to know a certain spectrum…. Choir directors, you can and should be definite about what you want; but super-simple, short explanations and gentleness could help. People might get all worried, otherwise. “Even Latin’s changed!’ — Maureen
So what should you do? Let your musical sense, your love of beauty, and love of your people guide you.