I'm not particularly versed in musical tradition, but I've been aware for some time now that the modern de-facto standard for pronouncing Latin in singing is what is commonly referred to as the "Ecclesiastical" pronunciation. Now, this makes sense in a purely Roman Catholic context, but it also seems to be standard quite outside of that. So, in the well-known Christmas carol "Angels we have heard on high", the Latin phrase Gloria in excelsis Deo is pronounced (as far as I've observed) more or less as [ɡloːːːːː::::ria in ɛksʧɛlsis deːoː]. But, why?

My understanding (perhaps erroneous) is that the Italianate Latin pronunciation became standard for the RC church only in the 19th century, so why has it now become normal for singing in Latin universally, outside of a RC context?

Quite apart from the Christmas-tide "gloria in excelsis Deo", I recently heard a rendition of Carl Orff's musical version of a Latin mediaeval poem from Carmina Burana, O Fortuna, and was struck by the consistent modern Ecclesiastical pronunciations, e.g., glaciem as [ɡlɑʧiɛm]. Assuming that a restored Classical/republican pronunciation of [ɡlɑkiɛm] would be considered inappropriate for the time-period, and that the Carmina Burana was a collection of a German mediaeval Latin poems, wouldn't [ɡlɑtsiɛm] be more appropriate? (At any rate, I find the Italian pronunciation rather off-putting in the context.)

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

  • For the final question: no, because "x" in Italian and in E. Latin is pronounced [ks] and "c" before "e" or "i" is [ʧ]. Being one after the other, they're just added up together. Dec 27, 2018 at 2:55
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    @VincenzoOliva: Hmm. I'm not sure I quite agree with that logic. Note that sceleris is pronounced [ʃɛlɛris], so if <sce> is pronounced [ʃɛ] rather than [sʧɛ]. should not <xce> (equivalent to <csce>) be pronounced [kʃɛ] by the same logic?
    – varro
    Dec 27, 2018 at 3:27
  • With the last remark of my first comment I didn't mean "because they're one after the other". I stated a rule: when they are one after the other, the're just added up together, i.e. "xc" before "e" or "i" is always pronounced [ksʧ]. As you noted, this is not the case for "sc", which in these cases is [ʃ] and not [sk]. Dec 27, 2018 at 3:44
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    In Germany and parts East, a different pronunciation is current for Church Latin, one less influenced by Italiian. [ɡlɑtsiɛm], for example.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 27, 2018 at 16:54
  • Anyway, the answer is tradition and taste, though I don't know if this can be made into an answer. I remember reading discussions about this, where many said to favour the softer sounds of Italianate Latin, sometimes in view of "more intimacy with God" - typically considering veni, vidi, vici, in fact. Being Italian I also prefer these sounds, but I opt to be (more) faithful to how the Romans spoke around 200 AD. Dec 28, 2018 at 7:17

2 Answers 2


I agree with your view that the Carmina Burana should be pronounced as if it were German. Until the late 19th century, European schools and universities taught Latin pronunciation in local styles following the dominant language. This is why native English speakers say "Julius Caesar" in a way that would be incomprehensible to the man himself. This approach to Latin pronunciation is still preserved in English legal phrases such as "sine die".

Hence it is likely that the authors of the Carmina Burana pronounced Latin as if it were Hochdeutsch, subject to the proviso that the authors may not have been Bavarians even though the poems were found at Benediktbeuern. Mediaeval clerics did move around, however, so it is possible that the authors were not German speakers.

  • “pronounced Latin as if it were Hochdeutsch” – uhm, but what does that mean? How would we pronounce glaciem “if it were” Middle High German? Aug 7, 2020 at 19:52
  • I am no expert in MHG so I suggest you consult a guide to MHG pronunciation. From the little I remember, the only variation from Hochdeutsch in "glaciem" would be to pronounce the '"c" as /k/. At a guess, the "ie" would be taught as following the Latin, but it may well have been sounded as the monophthong /i/.
    – Pomponius
    Aug 8, 2020 at 23:02
  • But the pronunciation "glakiem" is definitely not how glaciem was pronounced in medieval Germany. It would be the reconstructed pronunciation that (as you correctly point out) appeared no earlier than the 19th century and would be out of place in a medieval song. Aug 9, 2020 at 9:32
  • Compare German loan words like Zisterne (from cisterna) or Kreuz (MHG kriuz, from crux, crucis). As a matter of fact, that we say Kiste (OHG kista, MHG kiste, from cista) is seen as proof that it must be a very early borrowing (3rd century or so). Aug 9, 2020 at 9:37

Angels we have heard on high is an English carol, so gloria in excelsis Deo should be pronounced as in English.

  • Neither an English nor a Latin carol. French. The original is Les anges dans nos campagnes.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 8, 2020 at 19:55
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    @Monsour If you sing it French, you should use French pronunciation. I assumed the question is why do we pronounce it like English when we sing it English.
    – Figulus
    Aug 8, 2020 at 23:09
  • If you sing a French carol partly in English and partly in Latin, you could just as well say you should pronounce the English as though it were Latin. In the real world, there are customs about how Latin is sung that aren't reducible to such trite statements. To take an example from using French words in English, surely you don't pronounce hors d'oeuvres as though it were English.
    – C Monsour
    Aug 9, 2020 at 0:36

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