For a ‘dead’ language, Latin certainly has a lot of variety in its pronunciation. As a member of a choir, you may have been told to pronounce Latin words differently by different conductors, or depending on the composer of the piece. How do you navigate this, remember what to sing, and figure out how to say things? Let’s have a look.
# 1 Starting with the essentials
For the sake of simplicity here, we’re going to look at two main categories of Latin pronunciation: ‘German-style’ Latin (German Latin) and ‘Italian-style’ Latin (Italian Latin).
There are a few key differences:
‘c’, as in ‘fecit’
German Latin: pronounce the ‘c’ like a ‘ts’: fe-tsit
Italian Latin: pronounce the ‘c’ like ‘ch’ as in ‘change’: fechit
‘gn’ as in ‘magnum’
German Latin: pronounce the g and the n separately, as in the name Agnes: mag-num
Italian Latin: pronounce the gn together to create a ny sound, as in ‘canyon’: manyum
’s’ as in ‘sicut’
German Latin: pronounce s as z: zeecut
Italian Latin: pronounce s as s: seecut
‘g’ as in ‘gentes’
German Latin: pronounce the ‘g’ as you would in ‘grape’
Italian Latin: pronounce the ‘g’ as a ‘j’, like in juice: jen-tes
#2 So what about Bach?
Being a German composer, Bach gets German Latin pronunciation.
Some examples include:
magnificat — mag – ni – fi – cat
fecit — fet – zit
sicut — zee – kut
generationes — ge – ne – ra – tyo – nes
saecula — zeh – koo – la
saeculotum — zeh – koo – lo – room
#3 And what about Parsons and Sweelinck?
Italian Latin pronunciation for those two gentlemen.
#4 Whichever camp you’re in, straighten out those vowels
Whether you’re a fan of the German school or Italian school, Latin is pronounced with straight vowels. This can be tricky for native English speakers who have North American, British or Australian accents. Many native English speakers round vowels — the vowel ‘ai’ in the word ‘rain’, for example, consists of 2 vowel sounds (called a diphthong), making it sound something like rayin. Speakers of European and Asian languages tend not to round their vowels so much, and that’s what we’re looking for with Latin pronunciation. Try listening to a German or Italian speaker on YouTube and notice the straighter vowels.
#5 That’s a lot of stuff to remember
Yes, yes it is.
Let’s look at how to make it easier:
Jot down on each score which type of Latin pronunciation is required for each piece,
Write the phonetic spelling of the text on the score itself.
When writing the phonetic spelling, use a system that makes sense to you. It might help to write it in your native language or base it on the spelling of familiar words. If you’re so inclined, use IPA [http://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/]
[An aside for IPA geeks: this site [http://www.ipasource.com] has IPA transcriptions of more than a thousand arias and more than 6000 art songs. Happy browsing.]
#6 But… why?
Assuming the expanded version of that question is, “Why all this complication?”, the short answer is, “Because history.”
Thankfully, pesky questions like this mean more opportunities to learn. So stay tuned for the next post with the long answer to this question.