Difference between Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin

This essay is meant to provide 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 over the 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. This essay is 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.

What is Classical Latin?

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 when you date Rome’s rise and fall. 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.” 

Marcus Tullius Cicero - Biography, Letters & Legacy - HISTORY
Marcus Tullius Cicero

For this reason, Latin scholars arbitrarily chose a single moment in Rome’s long history at which to crystallize the development of the language and measure all prior or subsequent developments with reference to 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 with 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.

What is Ecclesiastical Latin?

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 between 500 and 700 seems likely, 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. 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 Differences between Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin?

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

1) In classical, the dipthong “ae” is pronounced like an English long “i”, as in “I am”, whereas 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, meanwhile, makes much broader use of the soft C, as in Regina Caeli, for example.

3) In classical Latin 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.” By contrast, 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, as in “got”; in ecclesiastical Latin it is more often pronounced like a “j”, as in “just.”

These are the differences in pronunciation (for further study, consult this excellent page at Phonetica Latinae).

If you have wondered 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 come to 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.

A History of the Medieval University of Paris – Brewminate: A Bold Blend of  News and Ideas
The University of Paris in the 14th century. Ecclesiastical Latin was the language of medieval scholarship

But now we must ask ourselves—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, why 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 millennia and which was not even spoken by most Romans even in its heyday?

The Evolution of Latin

Objectively speaking, classical Latin is more sophisticated. 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 made 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 (caballocavallochevalcal) were taken from the spoken Latin caballus, not from the written equus” (1)

As the spoken language continued to develop as the empire became more polyglot, 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 —when 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 sycophancy to the emperors became 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? Just as classical was never the 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 Church 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 principles; this led to the development of something called “patristic Latin”, which is a kind of sub-category of Late Latin.

From here on 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 churchmen communicated primarily 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 was 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 ecclesiastical 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.

The language | Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources

Why Prefer Ecclesiastical Latin?

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 Latin 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 actually 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 millennium 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 Catholics prefer the ecclesiastical pronunciation? There are five principal reasons:

1. Classical Latin is not the 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 an issue of Memoria Press’s The Classical Teacher in an article about macrons by Cheryl Lowe. In this essay, Lowe points out that the 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, though it is universally pronounced ih-ta-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 internally inconsistent and much more difficult to 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.” (2)

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, as 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 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. Ignoring 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 Latin is More Beautiful

This is, of course, a subjective assessment, subject to the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum, but it seems 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.

(1) Will Durant, Christ and Caesar (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1944), 73
(2) Cheryl Lowe, “To Macron or Not to Macron?” in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2010, p. 11

Ryan Grant, “The Difference Between Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, May 7, 2012. Available online at http://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/06/difference-between-classical-and-ecclesiastical-latin