Saturday, December 18, 2010

Classical vs. Ecclesiastical Latin (part 2)

In my last post we looked at the differences between ecclesiastical and classical Latin. In this post we will look at why classical Latin slowly evolved (through many intermediate phases) into ecclesiastical Latin and why we should prefer the use of ecclesiastical Latin in the Church to classical.

Classical Latin was never the main form of Latin of the Roman empire. It developed relatively late in the history of the Republic, coming only with the "Graecofication" of Rome that came in the wake of the Punic Wars and the conquest of Greece. This is first detected in the poet Ennius (239-169 BC); Cicero, one of the architects of what became known as "classical" Latin, was schooled in Athens and intentionally brought Greek constructions into the Latin usage, which he considered to stiff and rustic in its native form.  I would say the advent of classical Latin can be dated around 100 BC at the earliest, though 50 BC might be more reasonable; it maintained its supremacy only for a brief period, dying with the Republic as the advent of the Prinicpate and the Empire made rhetorical skill less important than imperial patronage in political advancement. It had already lost its supremacy by 100 AD and the advent of the Antonines, during which time Greek received a fresh patronage.

But even while classical was in vogue, it was not used by the majority of Latin speakers, for the simple fact that it was the language of poetry and rhetoric, that is, of a privileged few. As a written language, classical Latin did not keep up with the developments of Latin as actually spoken in the provinces and colonies. In all societies language is transmitted not by rhetoricians, but by common folk. Spoken language is fluid while written language tends resist change; another great example is the development of spoken Hebrew into Aramaic versus the rigidity of literary Hebrew in the time of Christ.

It is from the organic developments of spoken Latin that ecclesiastical Latin would eventually develop.  The secular historian Will Durant, no friend to Catholicism, nevertheless makes a good point about the distinction between written-classical Latin and the spoken dialects:
"As the written form of Latin  resisted change more than the spoken words,  the language of literature diverged more and more from the speech of the people, as in modern America or France. The melodious romance languages - Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian, - evolved from the crude popular Latin brought to the provinces, not by poets and grammarians, but by soldiers, merchants, and adventurers. So the word for horse in the Romance languages - caballo, cavallo, cheval, cal - were taken from the spoken Latin caballus, not from the written equus" (Caesar and Christ, pg. 73).
As the spoken language continued to develop as the empire became more polygot, a corresponding decline in the importance of rhetoric for political advancement made the constructions of classical Latin obsolete. Once the last vestiges of the Republic faded away, once important positions were filled by imperial appointment and no longer by election, there was no longer a necessity for the would-be politician to be a skilled orator. Fidelity and syncophancy to the emperors became much more important, leading to a general decline in the importance of rhetorical Latin. Couple this with the fact that Trajan, Hadrian and Aurelius, all Spaniards, had a tendency to elevate Greeks to important positions in the imperial court, and we can see why classical Latin waned in importance all throughout the 2nd century.

What replaced it? Well, just as classical was never the one dominant form of Latin even in its heyday, so it was not replaced by a single dialect but evolved into various forms depending on the region; we would not expect the spoken Latin of Hippo Regius to be the same as the spoken Latin of Eburacum (York) or that of Asia Minor to be the same as that of the frontier of Moguntiacum (Mainz). Generally speaking, though, classical gave way to a form known as Latinitas Serior, or Late Latin, which came in at the end of the 3rd century AD. The first Latin fathers, exemplified by Tertullian and Cyrprian, utilized this form of Latin, though already by 250 important developments were taking place in patristic writing as the Fathers stretched the limits of Latin in order to articulate Christian theological prinicples; this led to the development of something called "patristic Latin", which is a kind of sub-category of Late Latin.

From here on out the development of Latin gets more confusing; Late Latin in its spoken form became, by the 5th century, "Vulgar Latin", which was the colloquial form of Latin used throughout the empire that served as the core of what would become the Romance languages and differed from Late Latin relatively as much as the English of colonial Boston differs from our own, and from classical approximately to the degree that King James English differs from modern American. The catalyst that broke these blanket of vulgar dialects up into the Romance languages was, of course, the barbarian invasions of later antiquity, which by the 7th century had transformed the vulgar dialects into proto-Spanish, French, Italian and (later) Romanian.

But this was only the case in spoken Latin. As the Church mainly communicated by writing, and as the barbarians were by and large illiterate in the first few generations, the propagation of knowledge and the governance of the Church continued on in the Latin tongue without nearly as much dilution from the Germanic languages as the spoken Latin had suffered. Thus we are left with the reality, by the 6th century, of Church whose official language is one no longer spoken by the people. This form of Latin, to a degree influenced by the balkanization of the empire in its death throes and the developments of the 5 centuries since the time of Augustus, became known as "medieval" or "ecclesiastical" Latin. Unlike the spoken forms of Latin, this eccelsiastical usage was able to endure precisely because it was an administrative language; its spoken usage was also regulated by the liturgical books and sacramentaries, which acted as conservative bulwarks against the same kind of dilution that had turned Gaulish Latin into French. In short, by being wedded to the liturgical and administrative needs of the Catholic Church, ecclesiastical Latin was rendered invulnerable to the same deteriorating influences that had swept away prior forms of Latin, and was thus enabled to endure as the language of the educated for many centuries.

But, given the amazing enduring power of ecclesiastical Latin, why the sudden switch at the end of the 19th century to a renewed emphasis on classical?

Though we speak of the "restoration" of classical as coming in around 1900, it actually goes back way further, to the Renaissance, in fact. We can see the preference for classical over ecclesiastical as part of the movement inaugurated by Petrarch and the humanists; that is, a fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture coupled by a denigration of the culture and life of the Middle Ages. The fascination with classical Latin came out of this period of Renaissance humanism; however, the reason why ecclesiastical was not displaced at that time was that, though the men of the Renaissance showed a lively interest in things classical, they were also devoted Catholics who would not have thought of trying to actively supplant the Church's own living language. The men of the Renaissance, scholars like St. Cajetan, found in the classical tradition something that enriched the life of the Church and was put to use for the Church's ends. The moderns, by contrast, used the classical tradition to tear the Church's living tradition down. The men of the Renaissance may have admired the pagans of the past; it was the moderns who suggested that we actaully become pagans ourselves. In the same way, the men of the Renaissance admired the beauty and form of classical Latin, but it was the moderns who suggested that we displace a millenium and a half of tradition to replace our Catholic usage with a foreign one. Thus, the "revival" of the late 19th century can be seen as the linguistic equivalent of the heresy archaeologism - that Catholics must perpetually regard older usages as better and question developments.

This is the argument the classicists make. So then, what can we say? Why exactly should we prefer the ecclesiastical pronunciation? I can think of four reasons:


First and foremost is the simple historical fact that almost the entirety of our Catholic heritage in is ecclesiastical Latin. It is our Tradition. Regardless of how much we may admire the accomplishments of the ancient Roman civilization or the poetry and prose of the Augustan period, this is not the language of our Church or our tradition. It is the simple but profound Latin of Anselm, Aquinas and Bonaventure that has been the language of the Church. Classical Latin was the language of pagan Rome, the Rome of the persecutions and the bloody spectacles of the amphitheaters. This is not the Rome of the holy pontiffs, nor the Latin of the Church. Therefore, at least in the context of Latin, we might modify Tertullian's famous line to say, "What has the Aquinas to do with Virgil?" Or better yet, remember the words of our Lord to St. Jerome, "You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian." Though classical Latin is a valid form of Latin to be sure, it is not our Latin.


We might also point out that nobody has an ear for classical Latin. After century upon century of pronouncing Latin according to the usage of the Middle Ages, the classical pronunciation sounds awkward, artificial and forced.This was put quite well in the most recent issue of Memoria Press' The Classical Teacher in an article about macrons by Cheryl Lowe. In this article, she points out that many ecclesiastical pronunciations of words are so ingrained in our vocabulary that the even classicists do not say them according to the classical pronunciation. For example, according to Lowe, the classical pronunciation of a short a in classical Latin is uh. Thus, the conjugation of amo would be uh-moh, uh-mas, uh-muht. Yet nobody says that; even classicists say ah-mo. Another example is Italia, which in classical would be ee-tuh-lee-ah. Thus, we are left with some words which use the medieval pronunciation just by convention (Magisterium Magi, Italia, etc.) and others which would revert to classical pronunciation, leading to the type of hodge-podge we have in English where letters are pronounced differently depending on the word and usage, making the language much more difficult ot learn. The classical pronunciation actually hinders the comprehension of Latin by students because it is counter-intuitive. Lowe concludes the article by rightly saying, "There is a lot to learn in Latin, and I made the decision long ago that I didn't want an emphasis on the details of a "restored" classical pronunciation that no one has an ear for. It would be an impediment to learning Latin" (The Classical Teacher, Winter 2010, "To Macron or Not to Marcon?" p. 11).


If we can incriminate ideas by guilt-by-association, then the classical "restoration" of the late 19th century is condemned as the linguistic branch of the general modernist attack of the period. Just as the modernists wanted a new, critical approach to Scripture study and theology, so they advocated for a "new" approach to the teaching and speaking of Latin. And, just as in the other two cases mentioned above, the modernists pushed for classical pronunciation under the guise of a false archaeologism; the fable was fostered that because classical was closer to the usage of the early church, it was "better", implying that the legitimate developments of the subsequent eighteen centuries were deficient. Of course, this was a fallacy because the Latin of the early church was not classical Latin. The Latin of the earliest liturgies, those of African churches circa 200 AD, were not classical Latin; indeed, by that time classical Latin had been out of usage for almost a century (we'll reserve for a future post the question of what type of Latin the Fathers did in fact use).

We also must be aware that the classical restoration was not done exclusively by theological modernists. It was originally the work of linguists in the burgeoning field of philology who had little concern with Catholicism or liturgical matters. But, just as theological modernists utilized the positivist historical methods being propounded in secular historical research for their own ends, so they jumped on the work of the classical linguists to push their agenda within the Catholic Church. To the extent that we agree with them, to the extent that we opt for a classical usage over the Church's own ecclesiastical, to that degree are we giving ground to the modernist doctrine that the post-apostolic developments of worship and practice within the Catholic Church are crusty accretions that need to be purged.

I know this is a bit subjective, and I suppose the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum comes into play, but it seems to me that the ecclesiastical pronunciation is simply more beautiful and thus more fit for worship of God. Imagine, when saying "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel" if the Vs were pronounced as Ws. Imagine if in the "Regina Caeli" the C and G were both hard. The ecclesiastical pronunciation is supremely more beautiful, in my opinion. It is a matter of taste and convention to a degree, but in matters of Catholic worship, we ought to take questions of beauty very seriously.

The ecclesiastical Latin of the Church is just as integral to her character as her architecture or Gregorian chant. Just as we deplore the abandonment of traditional architectural models for ugly modernist ones and chant for contemporary music (even when such changes are done under the pretense of returning to what Newman called an "illusive primitive simplicity"), so should we jealously guard the form of Latin that has been handed down to us. While we defend on the one hand those who would say with vehemence that Latin should be abandoned altogether in favor of the vernacular, let us also guard our flanks from a surprise assault from the other side which would grant us our language, but in such a form that it becomes the language of scholars and antiquarians and no longer our own.


Richard said...

re:"Thus we are left with the reality, by the 6th century, of Church whose official language is one no longer spoken by the people."

I assume you're referring to the matter of when church Latin and vulgar dialects became mutually incomprehensible.

I don't have the sources on hand, and it's been a little while since I've looked into this, but some recent investigations into medieval liturgical practice (specifically the composition of hagiographies arguably to be read aloud to congregations) have attempted to push the break into the 7th, 8th, or even 9th centuries.

At the very least, two salient documents are the Oaths of Strassbourg and a synod at Tours, both 9th century. The former is of interest because the language is clearly some mid-point between Latin and French. The latter because it includes an item that is usually interpreted as an order to priests to preach in the vernacular. Prior to that, it seems that vulgar speech was just considered grammatically poor Latin, as opposed to a separate language. It's a bit of a stretch, but one can find some parallels between this case and the modern debate over "ebonics".

As usual, there are serious interpretive issues surrounding the linguistic status and representativity of both items. For instance, there is the possibility that the Oaths were written in stylized courtly language that could have been far closer to its Latin roots than the common speech in at the time. Also, regarding Tours, priests are ordered to preach "in rusticam romanam linguam aut thiotiscam", the final word referring to a particular Frankish dialect. Given this (among other pieces of evidence), there's a huge problem with the idea that anyone in the early middle ages had a clear concept of church Latin as distinct from vulgar Latin, since it would take a while before people became conscious of linguistic differentiation as such enough to become partisans for it.

[oh, I managed to find a source:]

BONIFACE said...


I wouldn't necessarily say I meant when they were mutually incomprehensible, only when they were recognizable as two distinct languages, even if there still was some mutual comprehension. One problem with making such generalizations, however, is taking into account the status in different parts of Europe. Ecclesiastical and spoken Latin probably diverged at different times in, say, Asturias, Normandy, and York; it probably took much longer in Lombardy, Tuscany and Latium than it did in Pannonia, Libya and Bath.

Seán said...

The ecclesiastical pronunciation is supremely more beautiful, in my opinion.

Certainly subjective, but probably informed by the things you are talking about like we are used to the pronunciation, it has a long tradition with the idea of tradition packed into it. Some other people may think that ecclesiastical pronunciation would sound awful while reading chi-che-ro! I am not very concerned that people are learning the classical pronunciation. I am concerned that the classics programs are ignoring the vast body of ecclesiastical literature, and also not exposing them to them to this common pronunciation. Also, I think it is utterly foolish for any priest or religious to be taught the classical pronunciation for devotion and prayer, let alone its actual use.

Keep in mind also that the Church over the centuries has adoted the classical spelling of Latin. Previously for centuries ae/oe were e, and i was j, and u was v. In the early 20th century only j and v were retained, but by the VII Council there was i and u in there, so the text did not reflect the ecclesiastical pronunciation tradition. Now I understand that in general Latin texts were being standardized in this way in and out the Church, but on first blush oe as e may not be intuitive. But the classical pronunciation is intuitive here. In fact the classical is intuitive in every instance, so there is that challenge when teaching ecclsiastical Latin. You've got to unlock the code.

Luckily I think the Roman pronunciation is in a strong position. I have never heard a music CD having classical pronunciation, and I've only heard rumors of priests using it. Luckily my priests have their pronunciation down well, and speak very fluently. I noticed this below in Wikipedia. It mentions the recommendation of Pius X, so I think this is another reason to use it. [It also notes that The Passion of the Christ had this pronunciation also, even though it probably was not historically accurate.]

In his Vox Latina: A guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin, William Sidney Allen remarked that this pronunciation, used by the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and elsewhere, and whose adoption Pope Pius X recommended in a 1912 letter to the Archbishop of Bourges, "is probably less far removed from classical Latin than any other 'national' pronunciation"; but, as can be seen from the table above, there are, nevertheless, very significant differences. Pius X issued a Motu Proprio in 1903 making the Roman pronunciation the standard for all liturgical actions in the Church meaning that any Catholic who celebrates a liturgy with others present be it the Mass, a baptism, or the Liturgia Horarum, then they are to use this pronunciation. The ecclesiastical pronunciation has since that time been the required pronunciation for any Catholic performing an action of the Church and is also the preferred pronunciation of Catholics whenever speaking Latin even if not as part of liturgy.

BONIFACE said...


Grrr...yes, I forgot entirely to mention the part about literature! You are so right! Like how (for example) the Wheelock textbook we learned from in college used exclusively classical sources - a bunch of Cicero, Terence, Caesar, etc. Nothing from the Christian era or the Middle Ages whatsoever!

Richard said...

Ah, I see. But still, it's not clear cut what exactly a "recognition" of "two distinct languages" actually is even in the modern day, let alone in the early middle ages and especially in light of your certainly correct observation that the rate and degree of divergence between formal Latin and common speech was different in different parts of the former empire.

I know I'm nitpicking a bit on this, but the reason I'm doing so is that I know for a fact that many Protestant groups capitalize on the standard "Latin stopped being understood in the 6th C." historical shorthand to bolster various claims about the increasing power of the papacy and its alleged nefarious plot to withhold the Bible from the common people, and other such tales. And come to think of it, I now wonder exactly when and why the dating of the "loss" of Latin in the 6th century became commonly accepted (I suspect Gibbons's outdated influence), esp. since the documents we possess regarding ecclesiastical concern for public intelligibility seem to date mostly from the late 8th and early 9th centuries, which suggests that whatever problems of comprehension that existed in the 6th and 7th centuries may not have been all that serious. In any event, the 6th century dating is certainly problematic and, moreover, seems to fit a little too conveniently into a prophetic 1000-year scheme whereby Luther's Reformation would signal the end to the dark years of papal obfuscation.

Anyway, that's where I'm coming from.

BONIFACE said...


I know that Protestants may say that, but even so, I don't see how that is an argument against a fact of history. I think the 6th century is broadly true, though different in different areas, as mentioned before. Protestants may make of this what they want, but I don't think we should let Protestant apologetics cause us to alter the facts of history. I'm not sure how the 6th century date originally came, but since there is such a wide unanimity on it, it probably is true. I guess either way the Traditionalist position is open to attack - either, as you say, by Protestants who talk about the Church keeping the people in the dark through Latin, or, if you maintain that Latin was understood far longer, then you are open to attack by progressive Catholics who can say "See, the liturgy was in the vernacular for the first eight centuries" and use this ad ammunition against a return to Latin today.

Seán said...

I think the situation is too varied to make definite pronouncements. But evidence of vernacular Latin shows changes happening under the surface which don't find their way into common writing for over a 100 years or so. But we know from Augustine's sermons for instance what was understood in Africa at that time by, I guess, a relatively educated populace. There is a broader question here about languages. For instance there are mutually intelligible languages which are only defined separately due to national boundaries. Keep in mind too, that most people were not literate, so they probably just thought, "I don't understand", or "I understand some of it". I imagine that that thought process was going on even before the Roman Empire fell, because the phenomena was not a written one, but a spoken one. Also language change is progressing slower in English than it did in Latin at that time. Any oral culture, which vulgar Latin was, put under the stress it was under, would change quickly. The minute commerce broke down a little, the race was on, so to speak. We see a similar process in Old English in which its society was crushed by Norman French rule. When she comes back out the other side, she is a very different language. Read 11th century stuff, and then read Chaucer.

Richard said...

First of all, I was never trying to use the Protestant position as the sole or primary basis for argument about historical fact, as in "the Protestants say this, so the reverse must be true, or at least made to be true". That would be foolish, and you're right to say so. But while I accept your good point about the analogy with modernists and the vernacular, that was never the issue. I apologize for not being clearer.

The point I was trying to make is fundamentally based on the strong recent challenges to the 6th century date. It is primarily on this basis that I think we ought not insist upon it.

But you wrote, "I'm not sure how the 6th century date originally came, but since there is such a wide unanimity on it, it probably is true." I'm sorry to say it, but this is a remarkably bad argument. Would you accept this from someone who was defending the old standard Galileo/anti-science chestnut? Please provide your sources for the alleged scholarly consensus. I already gave you one link that I believe bolsters my case; here is another: [] (see the J. Herman quote under the heading "History")

Now, why did I bring up Protestantism? Well, given that there are major problems with the 6th c. dating, I had cause to wonder how it originally came about and why it enjoys such unimpeachable factual authority. I have seen a fair amount of Protestant (and also secular Renaissance Humanist, Enlightenment, and Modern) propaganda that effectively employs the alleged 6th c. loss of Latin as circumstantial "proof" that the rise of church power in this century set civilization backwards. This seems to me to be an awfully convenient date that has been easily passed around from one antagonistic ideology to another, but which never seems to have required a systematic demonstration that anyone felt obliged to point to, even though it seems to have been settled upon well before anything close to the scholarly linguistic consciousness and apparatus necessary to investigate it began to be developed.

Moreover, it is the (thankfully rapidly changing) case that the general English-speaking public's impression of the middle ages has been strongly formed by this propaganda for centuries. There are many reasons for this, but the salient consequence of this is that far less scholarly critical attention was paid to the middle ages than the classical periods in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Everyone just kind of knew what the middle ages were all about, and if you had an authentic curiosity, then you could always plod through Gibbon's mammoth opus (which was an excellent, serious, and thorough scholarly treatment for the time, but certainly was not without faults, not the least of which was the author's own ideological bias against the church). Only recently (last 50-60 years or so) has the scholarly community come to realize that it can't just coast on footnotes to Gibbon any longer, and there really has been something of an academic revolution regarding the Late Roman empire and the Middle Ages. This is why I'm skeptical of any unsubstantiated and/or antiquated "unanimous" opinions about the middle ages (e.g., lack of technology, lack of medical attention, "decline and fall", "barbarian" kingdoms, etc.).

Now, on the basis of all that I suggest that we not uncritically accept and promote a questionable historical timeline, especially when it has the disadvantage of supporting popular unsubstantiated narratives that are averse to our cause. To do this is not to attempt to alter history for partisan purposes.

BONIFACE said...

You are "unanimous consent" argument is lame. I can readily accept everything you are saying...all I am saying is that, whether it was the 6th or later that the languages diverged, I don't think either scenario is particularly damaging to Catholic arguments about the propriety of Latin, although I can see that some might be stronger than others.


Anonymous said...

What you call "ecclesiastical" Latin, referred to its pronunciation is in fact Italian Latin. All the Latin countries -not only Italy- have their own Latin pronunciation, that happens that, contrary to the restitute or classical pronunciation -recreated by scholars-, that one is real and authentic, originated around the IV century in those countries and used until now.
Probably you know that Gregorian chant is not originated in Italy, but in the area around Saint Gall, in the frankish empire. The pronunciation is not italian.
I can recall (I can be wrong) that missa de Angelis is English.
Probably you know that there is a traditional English pronunciation (that does not sound to Latin at all).
The same happens with texts created or composed in German countries.
Given the zest for authenticity and back to origins that prevails in today performes, the task can be haunting.
Anyway, I agree with you that it sounds better Italian Latin in music
than other harsh pronunciations.