February 21, 2004

The Latin of The Passion

I commented a little while ago on the fact that the use of Latin in Mel Gibson's forthcoming film The Passion is not authentic because Latin was not widely used in Israel. It turns out that isn't the only inauthenticity. According to correspondants who have seen previews of The Passion, in the film Latin is spoken in the Italianate pronounciation, that is, in the pronounciation generally used in the Roman Catholic Church in Italy and the United States. That is not how Latin was pronounced 2,000 years ago.

Now, you might wonder how we know. After all, the Romans didn't bequeath to us any recordings of their speech. And indeed, sometimes, when a language is known only from written records, we may not have a very good idea of what it sounded like. But there are ways of learning what languages sounded like in the past, and when we are lucky it is possible to learn quite a bit. Sometimes we have descriptions by contemporary authors. Sometimes we have indirect evidence, such as the way in which the words of the language in question were written by speakers of other languages, or the way in which loans from foreign languages were written. Some information can be gleaned from variation in spelling. Sometimes we can make inferences from developments in the daughter languages, or from the application of phonological rules.

In the case of Latin, we know quite a lot. The best summary of our knowledge of the pronounciation of Latin is a slim book entitled Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronounciation of Classical Latin by W. Sidney Allen. It has a companion entitled Vox Graeca that summarizes our knowledge of the pronounciation of ancient Greek. The most obvious difference between the Italianate pronounciation and the classical pronounciation is the use before [e] and [i] of the palatal affricates [tɕ] (as in cheese) and [ʤ] (as in judge) in place of the velar stops [k] (usually written <c>) and [g] respectively. According to Allen, that pronounciation didn't arise until at least the fifth century C.E.

By the way, although it has pride of place due to the role of the Italian clergy in the church, the Italianate pronounciation is not the only one used in the Catholic church. There are various "national" pronounciations, which at times have been defended vociferously against reform. According to Allen (p. 104):

The reforms were, however, opposed by the Chancellor of the University [Cambridge - WJP], Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who in 1542 published an edict specifically forbidding the new pronounciation of either language. As penalties for infringement, M.A. s were to be expelled from the Senate, candidates were to be excluded from degrees, scholars to forfeit all privilges, and ordinary undergraduates to be chastised.

Gardiner's edict was only repealed in 1558 on the accession of Elizabeth I.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 21, 2004 02:46 PM