You need not learn to read and write Latin in order to chant the Rosary — but you must learn how to pronounce Latin words.
Don’t be alarmed. It is actually quite easy. The spelling is largely phonetic. Once you know the alphabet, you can sound out most of the words.
Of course, Latin has some special pronunciation rules, as do all languages. These are summarized on this page. The rules set forth below apply specifically to Church Latin, as opposed to Classical Latin.
Classical Latin reflects the speech of educated Romans during the so-called Golden and Silver Ages of Latin literature, roughly 70 B.C. to A.D. 130. Church Latin derives from the era of the Christian Roman Emperors, from about A.D. 324 to A.D. 565. For a fuller discussion of the evolution of Church Latin, see the article, “Church Latin vs. Classical Latin” on this Web site.
Now let us get on with the lesson.
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The Roman Alphabet
(circa 30 B.C. to A.D. 1300)
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
Learn the Roman Alphabet
*The Latin “H” is pronounced only in two words; nihil and mihi. In both cases, it is pronounced with a “kh” sound, similar to the Scottish “ch” in “loch” or the German “ch” in “ach”. In all other cases, the “H” is silent.
** In Latin, the letter “I” could serve as a vowel or a consonant. As a vowel, it is pronounced like the English “i” in “routine”. As a consonant, it is pronounced like the English “y” in “yes”.
*** The vowel “U” does not appear in the Roman Alphabet. Romans used the letter “V” to represent “U”. Sometimes “V” sounded like the “u” in flu; other times like the “v” in vote; and still others like the “u” in quick. The Romans would have written USUSFRÚCTUS as VSVSFRVCTVS. Hundreds of years after the Roman Empire fell, Medieval scribes invented the letter “U” to help clear up any confusion between the different pronunciations of the letter “V”. Since then, all Latin texts have employed the letter “U” for clarity — a practice we follow on this Web site. Readers should keep in mind, however, that the symbols “U” and “V” represent the same letter in the ancient Roman alphabet.
Combinations of Letters
AE / OE
“e” as in men
“ow” as in owl
“ay” as in “aye aye, sir”
like an upper-class British “oh!”
Except for the examples above — AE, OE, AU, AY and EU — any combination of two or more vowels should be pronounced with a clear separation between the different vowels, so that each vowel forms its own syllable.
When consonants are doubled in Latin, we should sustain their sound slightly longer than when these same consonants appear alone.
When followed by E, I, AE, OE or Y, the C becomes soft, like the “ch” in Church. Normally C is pronounced like the “k” in king.
When followed by E, I, AE, OE or Y, the combination CC becomes soft, like the “tch” in hatchet. Normally CC is pronounced like a slightly prolonged K.
When followed by E, I, AE, OE or Y, the combination SC becomes soft, like the “sh” in shore. Normally, SC is pronounced like the sc in scope.
When followed by E, I, AE, OE or Y, the G becomes soft, like the g in giant. Normally, Latin G is pronounced like the g in Gothic.
When followed by E, I, AE, OE or Y, the combination XC is pronounced KSH. Normally it is pronounced KSC, as in EXCUSSÓRUM.
When placed before any vowel, or followed by any letter (except S, X and T), the TI combination is pronounced like the tzy in glitzy.
Like the ni in onion or companion.
Like the “k” in king.
Like the “t” in tack.
Which Syllable Should Be Stressed?
STRESS RULE #1: Latin words of two syllables should always be stressed on the first syllable. Thus: ÁMO
STRESS RULE #2: In a word with three or more syllables, stress the next-to-last syllable — that is, the penultimate syllable — but only if that next-to-last syllable has a long vowel sound. Thus: MARÍA and PECCÁTA
STRESS RULE #3: If the penultimate or next-to-last syllable has a short vowel sound, do not stress that syllable. Instead, stress the syllable immediately preceding it. Thus: NÓMINE and HARMÓNIA
Stress Rule #1 seems simple enough. However, the second and third Stress Rules are of limited value unless we know how to distinguish between a “long” and “short” vowel in Latin.
How can we tell the difference? Well, we can’t, actually. At least not without practice.
Long Vowels and Short Vowels
In ancient times, native speakers of Latin knew instinctively when to pronounce a vowel long or short. We do not have that advantage, so we must rely on dictionaries, which usually indicate long vowels by the macron or “long mark” (Ā) and short vowels by the the breve or “short mark” (Ă).
The good news is that you don’t really have to worry much about long and short vowels. First of all, the difference in sound between them is slight. Secondly, you will begin making the distinction naturally, without even realizing it, as you practice speaking Latin aloud.
Thirdly, finally, and most importantly, many modern Latin texts and most Latin dictionaries indicate which syllables are to be stressed by placing an accent acute or “stress mark” over the accented syllable. Thus:
STRESS RULE #4: This brings us to STRESS RULE #4 — the only one that really matters. The best way to determine stress in Latin is simply to follow the stress marks provided by modern editors.
As you learn more words, and gain practice in pronouncing them, you will ultimately develop a natural feel for which vowels ought to be long and which ones short, just as the Romans did when learning their Latin. For now, just follow the stress marks.
This concludes our lesson on how to pronounce Church Latin. Now you are ready to learn the Latin chants of the Rosary.
A Note on Sources for this Lesson
The voice on these audio files is mine. The scholarship — fortunately — comes from more authoritative sources.
My principal guide to the Roman alphabet was W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin, Cambridge University Press, Second edition, 2004, Appendix C, “The Names of the Letters of the Latin Alphabet”, 111-115. A good version of the Roman alphabet, with audio files, can also be found online at WheelocksLatin.com.
For the rules of Church Latin pronunciation — and, indeed, for many of the specific examples used here — I am indebted to the Liber Usualis: with Introduction and Rubrics in English. Edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes. New York, NY: Desclee Co., 1961, xxxv – xxxix.
Also helpful was John F. Collins, A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1981). Collins diverges from the Liber Usualis on some points. He advises, for instance, pronouncing the letter “H”, rather than leaving it silent. In cases where these two authorities disagreed, I deferred to the Liber Usualis.