Saturday, February 4, 2012

Latin Lesson II

Last week we looked at the way vowels sound in ecclesiastical Latin. The principle remains the same for consonants, because Latin is a totally phonetic language.  After you have learned to say a certain combination of letters, they will sound the same - with very few exceptions – wherever you find them.

Before taking on consonants, though, let us look at another kind of letter – the diphthong. This is two vowels that sound together. In Latin, there are effectively only two diphthongs: “æ” and “œ” (and they are generally written like that, with the letters touching, to show that they are diphthongs). Both are pronounced like the Latin “e,” i.e., as if they were a long “A” in English. An example of the first is “aeternum”  (forever).  You say it as if it were spelled “eternum”, which it often is. The second diphthong used in Latin is the one in “coeli” (heavens), said as if it were spelled, “celi,” which it never is.

A note about the “y” in Latin: It is sometimes used as a consonant, sometimes as a vowel, as it is in English. When used as a vowel, it is then pronounced exactly as the Latin “I,” i.e., like an English “ee.”

A rule that is important for vowels  and/or diphthongs in Latin is that all of them are always sounded. For example, if you have two vowels in a row, as in “esurierunt,” you would say both the “i” and the “e” in the middle of the word. Another way to put it is that where there is a vowel or diphthong, there is a syllable. So the word above has five syllables: “Ay-soo- ree-ay-roont.” 

Some common words in Church Latin will be good for practice. Dominus (Lord) is pronounced “Doh-mee-noos,” while Deus (God) sounds like “Day-oos.” The name for the Blessed Virgin, Maria, is said “Mah-ree-ah.”  These are very basic Latin words, which most Catholics know from having heard them in well-known hymns, but we will address more vocabulary later.

Now on to consonants, which are, of course, far more numerous than vowels.  Alphabetically, B is the next letter and it is pronounced the same way as English, like the b in “bat.” C is more interesting; when it comes before the vowels, “a,” “o” or “u,” “c” always sounds like the English “k.” When it is used before “e,” “i,” “y” or either diphthong (ae or oe) it is pronounced like the English “ch.” When “c” is doubled in Latin, as in the word “ecce,” (behold), it is pronounced like “tch,” i.e., “Aytch-ay.”

The next two can be dealt with quickly, as they sound mostly as they do in English: “d” as in “down,” “f,” as in “foot.“  “G” however, changes, depending on the letters following it.  It sounds like the “g” in “gold,” before consonants (except “n”) and before “a,” “o” and “u.” An example is “gratias” (thanks). However, before “e”,“i”, and “y,” and the two diphthongs (which are treated like “e” for our purposes) the Latin “g” sounds like the English “j.” An example of this is “genuit” (kneels).  Last, the “g” before an “n,” as in “magnum,” (great), is pronounced with the “n,”  like the middle letters in “canyon,” i.e., as if “gn” were spelled “ny.”

If your eyes are glazing over by now, remember that once you start applying these rules to actual vocabulary, which we will do in later lessons, it will soon become automatic. The ability to say or sing the mother tongue of the Church will seem worth the effort to struggle through a few lessons. 

As encouragement, there is no “k” or “w” in Latin. (Some say there is no “J” either, because the Romans used an “i” for the consonant “j”. However, Latin transcribers often change the “i” to a “j” in order to avoid confusion with the vowel “i.”)

Next week: More consonants, including the controversial “h”.

Who knew the controversy inherent
in learning the Latin language?!

See the first Latin lesson here, or on the "Latin Lessons" page.

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