Christmas is a time when many “traditions” (that word has worn with use in our culture) get hauled out and paraded. Some, like standing out in the elements on Black Friday morning waiting for the store to open at 0500 (or earlier) could be dispensed with, especially with the internet, where we could do Black Friday in our pyjamas. (Then again, there are those who stand out in the elements in their pyjamas…)
One good one is Christmas music, especially those songs with a long heritage. Our culture has a knack of dumping the best in our civilisation, but many of the songs we sing–or at least let Mannheim Steamroller perform for us–have a long pedigree, either as “classical” music or in our folk traditions. Many of them were first written in other languages and made their way into English translation while no one was looking. But even these sometimes get trotted out in their original tongue.
Many of you who have waded through the prose on this blog have probably figured out that I a) took Latin as part of my education and b) enjoyed it way too much. Both being the case, I want to use this festive season to pick a bone with a large portion of Christianity and some others as well. I think it’s time that we pitch this so-called “ecclesiastical” pronunciation of Latin which plagues such classics as “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel) “Adeste Fideles,” (O Come, All Ye Faithful) and part of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and pronounce the language the way the Romans did when Our Lord actually laid in the manger in swaddling clothes.
Latin has persisted on the earth for nearly three millennia now; it’s unsurprising that changes in the pronunciation took place. Although there are many pronunciations of the language, two stand out: the so-called “ecclesiastical” pronunciation that the Roman Catholic church in enamoured with, and the “classical” pronunciation that is a reasonable reconstruction of the way it was said during the Republic and Empire (or at least the best parts of both.) If you’re interested in more details (but not too many), you can read this excellent presentation by Dr. Michael Covington at the University of Georgia. The Roman Catholics never stopped using Latin in their liturgy (although things didn’t look good in the 1960’s and 1970’s) but that didn’t obscure the fact that they had allowed changes that started in the Late Empire (when things really didn’t look good) to alter the way the language was pronounced.
The simplest example of this is the refrain to “Angels We Have Heard on High”. We’re used to pronouncing the c in “excelsis” like “ch” but in reality all c’s in Classical Latin were hard c’s like a k, so it should come out like “exkelsis”. That underscores another advantage of the Classical pronunciation: it was consistently phonetic, which is more than later Latin (to say nothing of the idiotic situation we have in English) could manage.
It’s tempting for me to say that this should be pronounced the way the angels did that first Christmas, but that butts into another problem: the Vulgate actually states that their proclamation was “Gloria in altissimis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis”. (Luke 2:14) In addition to sending the whole Christmas carol to the bottom, the literal translation of this is “Glory to God in the highest, and in the earth peace to men of good will”, which also throws cold water on the univeralist interpretation of the “traditional” KJV.
But that’s what happens when you get back to the source: you find the truth. We need to revert to the pronunciation of Cicero, Caesar, and Tertullian. That’s the way, at least, I’ve always pronounced Latin when the occasion called for it. That includes every time I said the Pater Noster. Well, you ask, didn’t anyone call you on this?
I got out in time. Have a Merry Christmas!