Classical vs. Ecclesiastical Latin (part 2)


In the last article we looked at the differences between ecclesiastical and classical Latin. In this article 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.  It can be said that 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, for most of his life skeptical 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 several 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 (although it must be noted that some scholars dissent from this opinion and place this break closer to the 8th century).

This form of Latin, to a degree influenced by the balkanization of the empire in its death throes and the developments of the five 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:
 
1. IT'S NOT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH'S LATIN
 
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.
 
2. NOBODY "HAS AN EAR" FOR CLASSICAL 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).

We should note also that for some words we prefer a very English pronunciation that is neither classical nor ecclesiastical - for Cicero, we all say "Sisero" rather than "Kee-ker-o" (classical) or "Chee-cher-o" (ecclesiastical).

3. A MODERNIST INNOVATION
 
If we could incriminate ideas through 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.

4. LOSS OF MEDIEVAL LITERATURE

If we choose to adopt classical pronunciation, then it makes sense that most of our study of Latin will focus on classical authors, as it does in many university programs and modern textbooks, such as Wheelock's Latin. In focusing exclusively on classical Latin, classics programs are ignoring the vast body of medieval and ecclesiastical literature. A very large part of our culture falls by the wayside, which is a shame ironically because this medieval Latin is easier to read than classical!

5. ECCLESIASTICAL IS MORE BEAUTIFUL

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.