Church Latin vs. Classical Latin

There are two ways to pronounce Latin. If you studied the language in high school or college, you would have learned the Classical or “Reformed Classical” pronunciation. In this tutorial, we are concerned with the Ecclesiastical or Church pronunciation.

The way we pronounce Classical Latin is roughly similar — we think — to the way educated Romans pronounced it 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.

Our knowledge of how to pronounce Church Latin is much more direct and reliable than our knowledge of Classical Latin. We do not know to precisely what extent we are pronouncing Classical Latin correctly. That is because Classical Latin died out for centuries as a spoken language. The pronunciation of Classical Latin had to be reconstructed centuries later, through a process of scholarly induction.

After years of careful study, scholars managed to reconstruct a hypothetical model of how educated Romans probably spoke during the Golden and Silver Ages of Latin literature. However, this theoretical reconstruction emerged very late in the game. In fact, the reconstructed pronunciation of Classical Latin used in our schools today did not achieve widespread acceptance until 1923.

A Living Tradition

Church Latin, on the other hand, is based upon a living tradition. It never had to be reconstructed, for it never became extinct. It was handed down from generation to generation, through the Church.

Ecclesiastical Latin probably reflects, to a considerable degree, the pronunciation used by ordinary Romans during the final years of the Empire — that is, during the Christian period, which began roughly when Constantine took power as Rome’s first Christian emperor in AD 324 and which continued through AD 405, when St. Jerome finished translating the Bible into Latin, and through AD 426, when St. Augustine completed his masterpiece City of God.

In order to reach the masses, Christian writers deliberately drew upon the language of the Roman street. Though well-educated themselves, they rejected the elegant, highly-wrought Latin of Vergil and Cicero, filled with borrowed Greek words and artificial complexities of grammar. Instead, they developed a simple style heavily influenced by the so-called sermo vulgaris — the language of the masses — whose vocabulary and pronunciation had drifted very far from the ideals promoted by the Latin grammarians.

“Better that I should incur the blame of the grammarians than not be understood by the people”, St. Augustine remarked.

WAY-nee, WEE-dee, WEE-kee?

To get a flavor of the difference between Church and Classical pronunciation, consider the word amicitia, which means friendship.

Classical pronunciation: ah-mee-KEE-tee-ah
Church pronunciation: ah-mee-CHEE-tsee-ah

Or take Julius Caesar’s famous boast, after defeating the king of Pontus in the Battle of Zela in 47 BC: “Veni, vidi, vici!” (“I came, I saw, I conquered!”)

Classical pronunciation: WAY-nee, WEE-dee, WEE-kee
Church pronunciation: VAY-nee, VEE-dee, VEE-chee

The difference is slight, but nonetheless important. Church pronunciation should always be used in worship. For this reason, the pronunciation guide in this tutorial focuses exclusively upon Church Latin.

Richard Poe