By Eben Dale
There are two basic Latin pronunciations used in the United States—Ecclesiastical (Italianate) and the Reformed Classical. Whether the magnificence, beauty, and power of Vergil’s poetry is best captured by the Reformed Classical pronunciation or the Ecclesiastical pronunciation is a matter of opinion. But pronunciation of Latin should not be a point of dispute. We should be united in our promotion of the study of Latin and recognize pronunciation as a matter of personal preference.
Unfortunately some Latinists can get very angry over the choice of pronunciation. The “reasons” listed below for each pronunciation are not meant to irritate anyone, but to give guidance to those beginning students who need to choose a pronunciation.
Decide what will work best for you based on your goals and objectives, likes and dislikes.
Ecclesiastical pronunciation is a more beautiful, more euphonious pronunciation. It is also easier to learn and is closer to English. Because it is closer to English it makes learning English words which are derivatives of Latin (important for the SAT and reading and writing in general) easier. It is also closer to the pronunciation of the Romance languages, which makes learning one of the Romance languages at a later date easier.
Praying and singing in Latin is one of the quickest ways to make Latin a part of family life every day. The great Church hymns, Panis Angelicus, Adoro Te, Ave Maria, Salve Regina, Adeste Fidelis, Veni Veni Emmanuel, and Stabat Mater are the cultural heritage of both Catholics and Protestants and are some of the most beautiful poetry and music ever written. Praying and singing in Latin calls for the Ecclesiastical pronunciation.
Vergil, Cicero, Caesar, and the other great Latin classical writers should be read with Ecclesiastical pronunciation because Ecclesiastical pronunciation captures the beauty, power, and magnificence of their words much better than the Reformed Classical pronunciation. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that our modern ears are accustomed to sounds having a certain meaning. Whether Caesar’s pronunciation of “Veni, vidi, vici” was “waynee, weedee, weekee” or not is irrelevant. To our modern ears, it sounds effete.
Second, Ecclesiastical pronunciation is simply more beautiful. Choir directors will painstakingly work with their choirs on pronunciation of Latin to bring out the beauty of the hymn because the pronunciation is so important. Since Classical pronunciation was absent from the world stage from the Late Latin period until the late 1800s (excluding the failed attempt by Erasmus to bring back the Classical pronunciation in the 16th century), if you added the number of people throughout history who read Vergil in Latin using an Ecclesiastical pronunciation they would far outnumber those who have read him using a Classical pronunciation. As the old saying goes: Dante Alighieri read Vergil with an Ecclesiastical pronunciation, and if it was good enough for Dante it is good enough for me.
Reformed Classical Pronunciation
The Reformed Classical pronunciation is used in most high school and college Latin classes. Vergil, Cicero, Caesar, and all the great Classical Latin writers used the Classical pronunciation and to really appreciate their writings it helps to pronounce it the way they did or at least close to the way they pronounced it.
The Classical pronunciation was simplified in the early 1900s into the Reformed Classical pronunciation to make it less complicated and difficult.
Still, the Reformed Classical pronunciation is more difficult than Ecclesiastical and is more removed from English pronunciation, requiring greater linguistic training.
The Reformed Classical pronunciation is the mainstream pronunciation of choice for most advanced Latin scholars, and there are some who would not regard you as a serious scholar if you chose Ecclesiastical pronunciation.
When choosing a pronunciation, remember that it is not that difficult to change pronunciations at a later date. There is a greater difference in pronunciation of English between someone from the deep south and someone from California, or someone from Maine compared with someone from New Jersey.
Which pronunciation to adopt is really a personal choice; there is no right or wrong pronunciation. There are good reasons to choose the Reformed Classical pronunciation and good reasons to choose the Ecclesiastical pronunciation.
Choose the pronunciation that you like best. Remember, too, that you can always change pronunciations at a later date. My own recommendation, for what it is worth, is to use Ecclesiastical pronunciation when first learning Latin for all the reasons described above. Then if you decide to major in Classical languages in college and the Reformed Classical pronunciation is used at the college you choose, make the switch to the Reformed Classical pronunciation at that time.