Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Benedicite, omnia opera

Lipman’s comment on yesterday’s blog and the document he linked to, together with emails received, suggest that it would be helpful to go a bit further on the school pronunciation of Latin.
Jason Nedecky writes
Having sung a lot under BrE choral directors here at the Anglican Church of Canada, I have become somewhat accustomed to [anglicized Latin]; I am thinking particularly of those canticles of the Book of Common Prayer adopted for Mattins: the "Benedicite" [ˌbɛ nɪ ˈdaɪ sə tɪ], the "Jubilate Deo" [ˌʤuː bɪ ˈlɑː teɪ ˈdeɪ əʊ], the "Venite" [və ˈnaɪ tɪ], the "Te Deum" [ˈtiː dɪəm], and so on.
The other day, I was watching a documentary on the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in which the famous anthem "I was glad," set by Parry contains that passage of "Vivat!" acclamations, adopted and Anglicised on that momentous occasion, as, from what I can hear: [ˈvaɪ væt ɹɪ ˈʤaɪ nə ɪ ˌlɪ zɪ ˈbeɪ θə].

The canticle names Jason cites are actually a mixture. Yes, at school we called the Benedicite ˌbenɪˈdaɪsəti (see LPD), but as a Latin word meaning ‘bless (ye)!’ we would have said ˌbenɪˈdiːkɪteɪ.

The Westminster School document referred to by Lipman describes the way English was pronounced in English schools up to about 1900. This way of pronouncing Latin derives from the reformed pronunciation introduced by Erasmus and his followers five hundred years ago. While this Erasmian reform removed some anomalies, its timing was unfortunate.
The advantages of the new pronunciation in England were soon to be diminished by an accident of linguistic history. For the reforms came at a time when the extensive changes from the Middle English to Modern English vowel system were still incomplete; and so any reforms in Latin or Greek pronunciation underwent these changes… the Latin vowels ā, ī, ē, for example, became diphthongs as in English name, wine, seen.
[Allen, Vox Latina, App. "The pronunciation of Latin in England"]

That is why we have aɪ rather than iː in the penultimate syllables of Benedicite and Venite as names of canticles, and similarly in hundreds of Latin loanwords in English, from appendicitis to virus.

Around 1870, however, a new reformed pronunciation was formulated by various Cambridge and Oxford scholars, and by the early twentieth century had spread to most British schools teaching Latin (though Westminster was a notorious exception). By the time I learnt Latin, then, the English Great Vowel Shift had been undone as far as English Latin was concerned (though we still continued to pronounce Latin entirely in English sounds). From the earlier ˈvaɪvæt rɪˈdʒaɪnə for vivat regina we had switched to ˈviːvæt reˈɡiːnə (and some brave souls even said ˈwiːwæt).
The earlier pronunciation has persisted in proper names and assimilated words, but has generally given way to the newly reformed pronunciation in actual Latin phrases and sentences.
Before 1870 I assume the Jubilate would have been called the ˌdʒuːbɪˈleɪti. In this case, however, for some reason the twentieth-century reforms have won out, and we all now say -ˈlɑːti (though we may hesitate between j- and dʒ-).

In my first year of Greek at school we still pronounced Greek with GVS-shifted vowels: so for example Μοῦσα ‘a Muse’ was ˈmaʊsə and τί ‘what’ was taɪ. But in my second year we switched to the newly reformed pronunciation and from then on said ˈmuːsə and tɪ.

With the influence of Catholic, Italianate pronunciation, Benedicite can now also be heard as ˌbeneˈdiːtʃiteɪ. But not in Anglican schools and churches.


  1. Famous "weeny, weady, weaky" (or wainy, more rarely and less punny).

    What I find interesting as well is how far the two systems make their way. Lawyers' Latin phrases are quite untouched, everyday words such as via are sometimes pronounced in the reformed way. (Though I don't think I've heard *[wiːɑː], just [viːə] for the older [vaɪə]. Those who'd smoothedly say *[vɪə] say [vaː] aynway, don't we.)

  2. Timothy J. McGee (ed.), Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance (Indiana UP, 1996) has, in the chapter on Anglo-Latin, a chart indicating the English pronunciation of Latin century by century from 1100 to 1700.

  3. In the recording of Carmina Burana by Orff that I own (conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos) an aria sung by a soprano starts like this:

    [ɪn trutina mentɪs dubiɑː
    fluctuant contrɑːriɑː
    lasivus amor
    et puditsitiɑː

    sed eligo kvod video]

    The singer, Lucia Popp, is German. I remember being very surprised when I first heard it, many many years ago.

  4. Orff is usually sung in the German variety of the NP. The differences aren't as big as in English Latin, mainly about ce, ce = ke, ki instead of the older tse, tsi. Interesting how much superior a 10-year old can feel towards laypeople who aren't classically educated, just by knowing Caesar is pronounced [ˈkʰeːzɐ], not [ˈʦeːzɐ].

  5. I'm interested in your last paragraph, in which you comment on the "Catholic, Italianate" pronunciation not used in Anglican schools and churches. The school I went to (in the 1980s) was a British state school but very traditionalist and grammar school-like: a small number of us did study Latin and we had music and religious stuff which was heavily Anglican influenced. Indeed, since my time there there has been some controversy regarding whether it should be officially recognised as a Church of England school or not.

    In Latin classes we were taught the reformed pronunciations you suggest are used for actual Latin phrases, but in singing we were taught what you refer to as Catholic and Italianate; except we were told it was "Church Latin"! Perhaps there was/is more variation, especially as so few English people now encounter actual Latin (as opposed to loans into English) at all. Perhaps our school, being not-quite-independent and not-quite-Anglican, just hypercorrected.

    I enjoyed Latin at school but rebelled against singing it on the grounds that I thought religious material should be in the vernacular. So I am left always wanting to pronounce Latin in the "reformed" manner. This has left me open to ridicule from a colleague who is a trained lawyer, and who is very amused by my attempts to pronounce Latin legal phrases seeing as I haven't the faintest idea how lawyers pronounce them --- and, of course, the teenage rebel in me still wishes lawyers wouldn't use Latin at all in the presence of us lesser mortals who didn't go to public school, and actually stick to English in the English courts ;-)

    On the positive side, though, I did once impress a Cambridge don who had some ridiculous title which meant he actually understood some Latin: I went to him to check the pronunciation of a grace but he didn't expect me to notate his response in IPA...

  6. BTW

    When I learned Latin in the very early 60s, v most certainly was [w]

  7. Sorry for the very late comment. In Wilfred Owen's famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est", the Latin word "morī" rhymes with the English word "glory", implying what you here call a "reformed" pronunciation of the final vowel.

    Owen was born in 1893, and according to Wikipedia "was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical school". The poem was probably written in 1917. Here's a link to the poem:

  8. At this morning, when i said the benedicite, i was reminded that the "winter and summer" is to bless the lord, and praise and magnify him forever.Even the oppresive, sweltering heat, which was crushing me and keeping.

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