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This question came up recently in my choir: how should we pronounce “mihi”?

The sentence is from a psalm:

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est.

We’ve encountered it in two Magnificats, the first one (Magnificat Primi Toni) by Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria written circa 1600, the second one by Estonian Arvo Pärt, written in the 80s.

We’re from France, so we were naturally inclined to pronounce it [mi'i]; some people said they were previously asked (in other choir) to say [miki]. The internet was of little help: some indicates that it might actually be [mihi]. Little to no sources on the various arguments though, except the Liber Usualis which is apparently in favor of [miki].

So how should we pronounce “mihi”? How was it be pronounced in Victoria’s Spain? How is it pronounced in modern ecclesiastical Latin (which would make more sense for Pärt’s Magnificat)?

  • Welcome to the site! The question is good, but unfortunately the answer depends on how you want to pronounce Latin. It's not uniform. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 2 '17 at 20:25
  • The Roman ecclesiastical pronunciation of mihi is [miki]. – Luc Feb 3 '17 at 9:32
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As you've discovered, there's not a good universal standard for pronouncing Latin.

Classical Pronunciation

This probably isn't what you want, but it's what all the others are derived from. The h is pronounced like in English: /ˈmi.hi/.

Spanish Pronunciation

In Spanish pronunciation of Latin, /h/ generally disappeared, leaving /ˈmi.i/. (Though see below.)

Ecclesiastic (Italian) Pronunciation

In Italian pronunciation, /h/ disappeared as well. But in two specific words, mihi and nihil, it was replaced with /k/ to avoid ambiguity. This is what the Liber Usualis recommends: /ˈmi.ki/

This last pronunciation spread into other areas as well, including Spain, though I'm uncertain about when this happened. (Notably some Medieval sources spell the word michi, implying that it was pretty early.)

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    In Gregorian chant, no question you should use /'mi.ki/, e.g. this recording from Fontgombault (France) at 2:09. Many church choirs will use this pronunciation regardless of origin, whereas some will use regional accents for their respective composers, such as German Latin for Bach's Magnificat, which has /'mi.hi/. Ultimately it's the choir's decision and consistency is key: classical restored pronunciation is probably never a good idea for period pieces though. – brianpck Feb 2 '17 at 17:12
  • I'll add that in English Latin pronunciation—that is, as Latin was pronounced on the British isles—from the 19th and 20th centuries, and perhaps before, it was /ˈmi.ki/. – Joel Derfner Dec 5 '17 at 11:56
  • @Draconis, that's a sound explanation, and could be a good example of an early artificial sound change. In Spanish there is actually a derived verb aniquilar [aniki'lar] (to destroy). Do you know any documentation on this (I'm not challenging the answer, it's just it is so good that It would be nice to have it sourced to make it even better) – Rafael May 28 '18 at 20:49

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