My question is about pronunciation of both e's in the word excelsis in Ecclesiastical Latin.

Here is an excerpt of a previous question in this site:

A final postscript: although what I've heard is that excelsis is pronounced in the Christmas carol is [ɛksʧɛlsis], wouldn't [ɛkʃɛlsis] be the "correct" Ecclesiastical pronunciation?

There is a comment by an Italian user that asserts that the answer to this question is "no", but what I want to remark is that it seems to be assumed that both e's in the word excelsis are pronounced /ɛ/.

I've also found this other question which states that these e's are both pronounced /ɛ/.

Now, looking at the entry excelsis at Wiktionary, I've surprisingly found the following phonetic transcription for Ecclesiastical Latin:


But there is also an alternative in brackets:


Maybe the problem is that I don't understand how Wiktionary works. I've tried to get it looking at this Appendix about Latin pronunciation, but I'm really confused. They seem to make a distinction between 100 BC and 100 AD, but in this case it seems not to make sense because, as far as I know, Ecclesiastical Latin was developed later, in the Middle Ages.

The Wiktionary article about International Phonetic Alphabet contains what I would expect about pronunciation of /e/ or /ɛ/.

Another problem is that I have heard lots of people and ensambles that were singing with an Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, but, unfortunately, their pronunciation is not always good.

Can anyone enlighten me about this?

1 Answer 1


They're not alternatives, strictly speaking: the transcription between slashes /.../ is a phonemic transcription, while the one between brackets [...] is a phonetic transcription.

Phonemic transcription is not concerned with pronunciation, only with underlying phonemes, so the choice of a specific notation for a phoneme depends less on the actual phonetic quality in practice than it does on the author's conception of clarity and convenience. The pronunciation of e in Ecclesiastic Latin is indeed [ɛ], but the phoneme that it reflects is conventionally written as /e/, perhaps just because it's easier to type, or reflects the spelling more.

  • Oh, I now see that Wiktionary article about Pronunciation states that phonemic transcriptions are given within slashes. However, it gives this phonemic transcription of the word better in non-rhotic accents of English: /ˈbɛt.əɹ/. Isn't this an inconsistency?
    – Charo
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 16:38
  • @Charo Regarding the vowels? /ɛ/ and /ə/ are different phonemes in English; there's a minimal pair in bet /bɛt/ and (unstressed) but /bət/. In other languages [ɛ] and [ə] might be allophones of the same phoneme, in which case you'd use the same phonemic transcription for both there (possibly /ɛ/). A phoneme is a phoneme in a specific language, not across all languages.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 16:57
  • That said, a lot of eager Wikipedians are very confused about the difference between phonemic and phonetic transcriptions, and even people who should know better sometimes think of /.../ as broad (i.e. less precise) phonetic transcription compared to [...]'s narrow transcription, and you'll inevitably run into clear misuse of IPA somewhere.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Charo People are free to use whatever transcription they like as long as it's consistent (and, ideally, eventually a consensus emerges and you get a set of conventions to use in a specific language). You could use /e/ for [ɛ] if you wanted to, but English in particular has a lot of e-like sounds, so the extra effort required to type ɛ might pay off in a reduction in confusion with other phonemes.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 17:10
  • 1
    Some English dictionaries do use /e/ in "better", so unfortunately there is no set convention on how to phonemically transcribe English. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/better?q=Better
    – rjpond
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 20:53

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