Adeste fideles laeti triumphantes
Venite, venite in Bethlehem
Natum videte regem angelorum
Venite, adoremus,
Venite, adoremus,
Venite, adoremus, dominum!

In the first link above Luciano Pavarotti, who is from Italy, sings this song in Montreal.

In the second, Helene Fischer, who is from Germany, sings the same song in Vienna.
(Fischer sings exactly the words above, then sings a verse in German, then sings the verse above again.)

Neither of them uses the "soft g" of modern Vatican Latin. In Fischer's case, that's perfectly in line with pronunciations in her native German; in Pavarotti's case it means he is certainly knowingly pronouncing it differently from the way it might be pronounced in Italian. Either way, it's not modern Vatican Latin.

So my question is about the pronunciation of "Bethlehem." As one would expect, Fischer pronounces it just as if it were spelled "Betlehem." But Pavarotti seems to make "lehem" into a single syllable. Would that be condoned by anyone's understanding of classical pronunciation? Or might it just be that Pavarotti has not mastered a pronunciation that is not of a sort occurring in his native language?


1 Answer 1


First of all, I don't think Pavarotti is aiming for a classical pronunciation here. I hear [d͡ʒ] in his pronunciations of regem and angelorum (0:41-42). I think he is using a generally Italian-style pronunciation (or what is often referred to as an "ecclesiastical" pronunciation).

My guess would be that Pavarotti does not make use of the phone [h] in his pronunciation of Latin. The use of [h] is not exactly a straightforward matter of classical vs. traditional pronunciation. There's a lot of evidence that [h] was not a stable feature of Latin pronunciation in classical times: while there are references in classical sources to some kind of a distinction in pronunciation between words spelled with the letter 〈h〉 and certain words spelled without it, Classical Latin poetic scansion consistently treats 〈h〉 as if it does not exist, and there are also examples of Latin sound changes ignoring it: for example, the s in the prefix dis- is rhotacized to [r] in the word diribeo, from habeo, which is a change characteristic of intervocalic [s] (contrast the treatment of dis- in differo). So pronouncing [h] everywhere where the letter 〈h〉 is used in Latin, and nowhere else, may be more of a spelling pronunciation that occurred sometimes in Classical Latin, and that may occur in modern pronunciations that aim at a classical target, but was not the only or perhaps not even the most frequent type of pronunciation in the actual classical era.

I think Pavarotti's pronunciation of Bethlehem is approximately [ˈbɛt.lɛ.ɛm]. Syllable division is not a straightforward phonetic property of speech, and when you add in the way singing affects the way people pronounce things, I think it's not too hard to imagine that a pronunciation that Pavarotti thought of as trisyllabic [ˈbɛtlɛ.ɛm] might sound to a listener like disyllabic [ˈbɛtlɛm].

Perhaps related to your question,〈Bethlem〉 is one of the variant forms listed in Lewis and Short. It also lists Bethleem, with the scansion Bĕthlēēm (which is odd as Greek Βηθλεέμ has a long vowel in the first syllable and a short vowel in the second).

  • 4
    Maybe of interest, in Italian it's Betlemme [beˈtlɛmme], so that might have flowed into Pavarotti's pronunciation one way or another. Jan 2, 2021 at 10:15
  • To me it sounded like a "hard 'g'" in "regen angelorum". Jan 2, 2021 at 18:33

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