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Gloria in excelsis Deo. Now Let's Get That Pronunciation Right!

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!


7 Replies to “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Now Let's Get That Pronunciation Right!”

  1. I’m a Latin major here at Loyola Chicago. Once we had a Jesuit-in-training in our Augustine class. We were all classicists and teased him about his ecclesiastical pronunciation.

    Even worse than that, though, is the pseudo-Latin “English” pronunciation most people use. Even some of my best teachers pronounce Latin very poorly. It comes out worst in classical poetry.

    Question – Do we know when the relevant changes in pronuciation took place? I’ve heard that already by Christ’s time , for example, was changing from [w] to [v], and to [e:]; but I don’t have a source on it.


  2. Although I can’t say my research was exhaustive, the sources I looked at indicated the changes began to take place in the Late Empire, which I interpret to be Diocletian and later.

    One thing that complicates the issue is that Latin had a major divergence in the way those engaged in rhetoric spoke/wrote it vs. the rest of the people. If we throw in the influence of the languages that Latin displaced (incompletely, in many cases) there was probably divergence in pronunciation at any given time.

    However, given the fact that the classical pronunciation is based in good measure on the grammarians, that the grammarians taught what was recognised as the proper way to speak and write the language (even by those who didn’t do it that way themselves,) and that Christian writers such as Tertullian, Augustine and Jerome (to name a few) were doubtless trained in this system, I think it’s proper to use the classical pronunciation.


  3. RE: “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) ”

    Hate to burst your bubble, but I highly doubt that the angels spoke Latin, since they were speaking to lowly shepherds. Whether they spoke Hebrew or Greek, it was definitely documented in Greek.

    As an ex-Catholic, I know that the Catholic church tries to make everyone think that they were there first, but Latin was a translation of the New Testament documents. The NT writers wrote in Greek.


    1. My, we have a serious bunch this Christmas Eve…

      If I had to take a serious guess at this, I would say that, to be understood by the shepherds, the angels made their proclamation in Aramaic, the language Our Lord spoke when he was on the earth. Given the struggle we have to get the Latin done properly, I’d hate to see the music world struggle with Aramaic…

      Yes, the NT writers wrote in Greek. The church actually went through two cycles of Latin translation during the Roman Empire: the Old Latin, whose OT was based on the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, translated/revised by Jerome.

      One of the points I was trying to make in this piece is that the Catholic Church, for all its continuity, allowed the proper pronunciation of this and the rest of the language to slip through its fingers…

      As far as the RCC liking to be first, that reminds me of a story of a dispute between the Jesuits and the Dominicans (I think) that ended up being resolved by the Pope. As everyone was waiting for the decision, the Dominican asked the Jesuit, “Will you obey the decision of the Holy Father if it is against you?”

      “We will be the first to obey”, the Jesuit confidently replied.

      “You always have to be first”! the Dominican shot back.

      Merry Christmas!


  4. First, let me apologize for being so late to this conversation. I’ve been on a mission to find the original pronunciation of “excelsis” for several years and appreciate your post and the link to Dr. Covington’s presentation.

    Secondly, I’d like to make clear that I’m not a linguist. Nor have I studied – let alone speak – Latin. I’m just an average Joe who grew up in an elementary school in middle America where our frazzled music teacher instructed us to pronounce it “egg-shell-seas”. Even as a third grader, I suspected that this was nothing more than an attempt to get us through the Christmas concert, and not an attempt to teach us some Latin.

    The more research I’ve done on this word, the further back in time I go. The last time I dove into this issue, I arrived at ek-chel-cease (with “ch” as in “church”).

    After reading your post I was ready to take your advice and move on to exkelsis, which I interpreted as eks-kel-cease. But, Dr. Covington’s paper gave me pause. When discussing the accented syllable in Section 4, the last point he makes is that x should be treated as “two letters because it stands for ks”. Following this reasoning, shouldn’t it then be pronounced ek-skel-cease?

    I understand I’m picking a very fine nit as to the placement of the “s” sound of “x”, but I feel I’m close to the end of my journey and I finally want to get it right.


    1. First, you’re not really late to the conversation, this piece is a perennial favourite, especially this time of year.

      Second, you are picking a fine nit, but I think you’re basically correct. I don’t think there’s as much difference between what you’re proposing and what I am as one might think. My major point is that the “c” is hard in Classical Latin and that’s the way it should come out here. I suspect that the transition from the “x” to the “c” in real life needs what you’re setting forth.

      Now Christmas can really be merry!


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