Western Civ

Civilization: society, culture and way of life of a particular area

Western: the area from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean to Europe to the Americas

History: the study of past events

Christmas eve, 2009

I like to read Classical and Ancient history.  So here’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time. If you’re pronouncing Latin the way Julius Caesar would have, you pronounce the letter C like a K.  ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ Caesar would have rendered as ‘way-nee wee-dee wee-kee.’ Cicero called himself Kee-kay-ro.

Latin isn’t pronounced in the Classical way when we sing Christmas carols.  Nowadays when singing Angels We Have Heard On High no one sings ‘In ex-kel-sis Deo’—it’s always ‘In ex-chel-sis Deo.’  When did the hard C become the soft C?  How do you look that up?

I take Italian lessons, and asked my teacher, Jan, about it.  She let me in on the secret: people in the language business use the terms palatal and guttural.   It’s about where the sound comes from in your mouth or throat.  Palatal is soft, guttural is hard—so CH is a palatal, K is a guttural C.

I googled ‘Latin pronunciation C K classical liturgical palatal guttural’—and still no answer as to when C stopped being pronounced as K.  I did find a pronunciation guide for Classical Latin.

So I began to think about what I knew of history.  I remembered that Charlemagne, when he took over the Holy Roman Empire in 800, found that every little church in the empire sang their hymns and performed rites differently.  I wondered if it had happened that the palatal C informally took over as regional dialect on the fringes of the empire during the centuries leading up to Charlemagne. In order to unify the empire. he’d instituted a standardization program of church text and music.  Maybe the palatal C was so widespread by that time that he (or Alcuin, his prime minister) decided to keep it as a permanent feature of liturgy.  The meticulous Alcuin would have worked up some kind of pronunciation guide, though.

So I googled ‘Alcuin pronunciation,’ and eureka!—found this.  Scroll down to paragraph 6.  It seems that those medieval Irish monks copied Latin texts, but weren’t sure of the pronunciation.  Ireland was the frontier of the empire, and possibly no Latin speakers visited the Irish monasteries, so the monks did as best they could.  For whatever reason, they assigned a CH sound to the letter C.  Alcuin was Irish, so when he standardized church music and liturgy for Charlemagne, the palatal C became part of the empire-wide program.

I’m Presbyterian, so Latin pronunciation in church hardly ever comes up.  After all. it was translating the Bible into vernacular that got the Protestant movement going.  My Italian teacher, a Catholic, told me that one doesn’t pronounce Latin classically in Catholic church, but liturgically—just as Charlemagne instituted 12 centuries back. If someone were to sing in a Catholic church, ‘In ex-kel-sis Deo’ instead of ‘In ex-chel-sis Deo,’ he’d get dirty looks from the regulars.  This was all news to me.

I believe that ‘In ex-sel-sis Deo’ is the way only English-speaking people pronounce it.  Isn’t that the way Bing Crosby sang it?

Boxing Day, 2009

Once you realize that C has made it down the centuries being pronounced K, S, CH or even SH, you see the connection between Caesar and Kaiser and Czar. How about calcium and chalk.  Cyprus is famous for its copper.  Caballeros can be chivalrous.  Sailors chant sea shanties and speak with a particular cant.  Charlemagne, Carolus Magnus, Carlo Magno, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great.

Yup, this kind of thing is what makes me the hit of every party.

One response to “Western Civ

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