Classical vs. Ecclesiastical Latin (part 1)

 

This two-part post is meant to serve as a basic introduction to the difference between classical and ecclesiastical Latin; in presenting the differences between these two forms of lingua latina we will look at the motives behind the sudden resurgence of the classical pronunciation at the turn of the last century and hopefully demonstrate why Catholics should prefer the ecclesiastical pronunciation to the classical. We must also offer a disclaimer that we are not Latin scholars nor classicists, and that those who make the study of the Latin language their exclusive field of study may find specific points to critique in this overview. Knowing this, we have tried to remain broad. These posts are meant as an introduction, and readers who want to delve into more detail are encouraged to go to resources prepared by Classicists and Latin scholars, not amateurs like ourselves.

Classical Latin refers to the Latin language as it was spoken during the time of the Roman Empire. However, right away we are stuck with a reference that is too vague; Rome endured as a regional power for around seven hundred years, give or take a century depending on how you determine when Rome rose and fell. This is a tremendous amount of time in linguistics; think of how different English as spoken in 1300 was different from modern English. To lump all English for the past seven centuries into a single category would be extraordinarily sloppy, and it is no less so when we try to equate "classical Latin" as that which was spoken "in classical times."
 
It is for this reason that Latin scholars have arbitrarily chosen one single moment in Rome's long history at which to crystallize the development of the language and measure all prior or subsequent developments by it. This moment is the Augustan age, also called the Principate, from 31 BC to 17 AD, where Latin literature was (allegedly) at its height. This is the Latin of Cicero and Virgil, the high rhetorical Latin of the Senate and Roman oratory. This Latin came into use following the cultural triumph of the Graecophiles following the Roman victory over Hannibal (centered around the circle of Scipio Aemilianus), was developed by Greek-influenced playwrights like Terence and Ennius and reached its zenith in the prose of Cicero and the poetry of Virgil in the following century. Therefore, classical Latin is most accurately understood to be the form of Latin used over about a hundred and fifty year period during the transition from the Republic to the Empire.

Ecclesiastical Latin (or medieval Latin as it is sometimes called) is the Latin language as it was developed in the early medieval period and utilized by the Catholic Church. It is difficult to say when ecclesiastical Latin became the norm in the Church, but I'd say anywhere between 500 and 700, though some place its development in the 4th century or even earlier; at any rate, it was definitely the standard form of the language by Carolingian times. This Latin grew out of the so-called "Late Latin" (Latinitas Serior)  which was in use from the 3rd to the 6th centuries AD. This ecclesiastical Latin was the language of Anselm, Alcuin and Aquinas, the Latin that was taught int he medieval universities and used at Lateran IV and Trent and which subsequently remained the language of the Church up until the upheaval of the Conciliar period, the sacra lingua of the Roman rite (although we could also add that ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation was meddled with by St. Pius X at the turn of the 20th century).

What are the main differences between classical and ecclesiastical Latin? There are two real categories of difference, one having to do with pronunciation, another with style. Here are the basic differences in pronunciation:

1) The dipthong "ae" is pronounced like an English long "i" (I am...) in classical while in ecclesiastical it is a long "a" (aye).

2) In classical Latin, the consonant C is always hard, as in "cat." Thus Cicero is pronounced "keekero." Ecclesiastical Latin makes much broader use of the soft C, as in Regina Caeli, for example.

3) The consonant V in classical Latin has a W sound, so that the imperative Venite (come) would be pronounced "wenite." Caesar's famous "Veni, vidi, vici" would have been pronounced "weni, weedi, weeki." Ecclesiastical Latin has the V pronounced the same as in English (as in the Latin words vita and vox).

4) All vowels in ecclesiastical Latin are long; in classical there are rules for long vowels and short vowels (each vowel has two sounds), traditionally distinguished by a macron symbol (˘).

5) The consonant G in Classical is usually hard (got); in ecclesiastical Latin it is more often pronounced like a "j" (just).

6) Finally, accent marks and macrons determine vowel pronunciation in classical Latin; ecclesiastical Latin does not rely on them nearly as much (in fact, not at all usually).
 
These are the differences in pronunciation (for further study, consult this excellent page at Phonetica Latinae). If you were to ask me how scholars are able to know so precisely how men pronounced words over two thousand years ago, the answer is that the Romans themselves told us. We have many first hand descriptions of the Latin language. In addition, there are comparisons with Greek and other Indo-European languages. We also know from the changes which came later to the Romance languages. Our knowledge of Classical Latin is very strong. 
 
Then we have the stylistic differences between the two forms. Classical Latin was the Latin of the elite. It was developed for use in political oratory, rhetoric and the recitation of epic poetry. It was used for official state functions, pagan liturgies and panegyrics. There is a great emphasis on stylistic and metrical perfection, for it was the Latin of an age when a speaker was judged not so much by the soundness of his arguments as for the rhetorical power of his delivery. It is the Latin of master orators, and as such, its construction is quite complex. Because so much value was placed on these rhetorical qualities, modern day Latin students find the sentence construction artificial and cumbersome. Many classics majors who had to read the Aenied loathed the experience.
 
Ecclesiastical Latin, on the other hand, is the Latin of a time when the written word was of much greater importance than oratorical skill, and when the focus had shifted dramatically from the rhetorical allure of speech to the ability of language to concisely explain and defend a line of argumentation. This is the language of Aquinas, the language of scholasticism. The sentence construction is frugal, almost terse at times, and very to the point. Yet it maintains a certain rustic charm and is capable of drawing great distinctions when the need arises. A great example of the Salve Regina, a prayer that is very simple to read and translate in Latin even if you have only been studying for a brief time. Ecclesiastical Latin is a Latin that is meant to be either read studiously or intertwined with the melodies of Gregorian Chant and sung. Modern students generally find it easy to understand, with natural and predictable grammar and very few needless rhetorical flourishes. Ecclesiastical Latin is the language of a people who actually used the language to communicate important ideas and placed high value on intelligibility and utility over stylistic considerations. Yet, as I said above, those who delve into ecclesiastical Latin find that it has a very distinct stylistic charm of its own.
 
But now we must ask ourselves this - if classical Latin developed into ecclesiastical Latin sometime at the dawn of the medieval period, and ecclesiastical Latin in turn became the form of Latin used by the Catholic Church from the dusk of antiquity until the modern day, how is it that most classical languages programs at the university level are teaching classical Latin when it is ecclesiastical Latin that has enjoyed a much longer lifespan and is in many ways still a vibrant and living force? Why have institutions of higher learning reverted to teaching a Latin that has not been spoken for almost two millenia and which was not even spoken by most Romans even in its heyday? We will look at these issues our next installment, here.