April 25, 2005

And the answer is: abemus

Never in the history of blogging was a post so rapidly and decisively refuted and crushed as my profoundly ignorant remark on Cardinal Estevez's h-less pronunciation of habemus papam. The best defense that could be offered is that my post was partially right: the language is called Latin, it does have a verb habere, and papa (accusative form papam) does mean "pope". But the accurate content of my post mostly stops there. A number correspondents with more knowledge of Latin than I will ever have (I who failed high school Latin at the age of 16 and never got much better at it than I was then) wrote lengthy emails to correct me.

Eliah Hecht happened to have just been reading the book I should have looked at (if the library had been open, or if I had owned the book): W. Sidney Allen's wonderful Vox Latina. And it reports that /h/ had started to disappear by end of the Roman republic, as various omissions and misapplications show (you get ORATIA for HORATIA, AUET for HAUET, and so on); Allen says that "by the classical period in fact knowledge of where to pronounce an h had become a privilege of the educated classes." The educated Roman classes, that is.

Geoff Nathan confirms this: the /h/ was gone in Latin by the third century CE or so, and the Appendix Probi (a third-fourth century prescriptive spelling manual for Latin) has corrections that put h's back in, a key sign that the sound had all but disappeared.

But we're not half done with how wrong I was. Nathan Vaillette points out to me that

if Cardinal Estevez was not speaking flawless *Classical* Latin, you still can't complain about his *Ecclesiastical* Latin pronunciation. This norm seems to be (semi)standardized and established. For instance, the following page on the Global Catholic Network site ("adapted from the Liber Usalis [sic], one of the former chant books for Mass and Office") tells us not to pronounce orthographic "h":


I found several choral sites with similar recommendations for singing church Latin, e.g.


(I also seem to remember that John F. Collins' popular Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin says the same about "h", but I don't have it in front of me.)

Furthermore, if indeed Estevez spoke Latin with "a Chilean Spanish accent you could cut with a knife", you would expect the [b] in "habemus" to come out as a voiced bilabial fricative. And I'm pretty sure Chilean Spanish is among the "s" aspirating varieties, where [s] in some environments—syllable codas at least—is either replaced by [h] or lost completely. So unless you heard [aBemuh papam], where [B] = voiced bilabial fricative, I think you're being a tad harsh.

That last point is so obvious that I actually knew the facts, but forgot to apply them. He did indeed have a [b] between vowels, not a bilabial fricative [β]. I'm writhing on the floor with humiliation here.

There is more. John Cowan writes to point out that the Cardinal was almost certainly likely to be using

the standard pronunciation of ecclesiastical Latin ("c" and "g" as in Italian, vowel length lost, etc.). In that tradition, written "h" is not pronounced except intervocalically, where it is pronounced /k/; thus mihi is ['miki].

We see an example of /h/ > /k/ in the name of the letter "h": /'aha/ > /'aka/ > OF /atS@/ > ME > ModE /eitS/. Some people supply an unhistorical /h/ at the beginning to make it /heitS/; this is often heard in Ireland, and it's said that terrorists on both sides have used this feature to separate h-ful Catholics from h-less Protestants.

The English names of the letters, because they have never had a standard written orthography, are a juicy example of "pure" sound-change and analogy at work; they were apparently invented by the Etruscans (an Etruscan?) and borrowed into Latin, and tracing them tells us both the Latin > Old French and the ME > ModE sound changes as well as the history of the modern Latin alphabet!

John McChesney-Young has written with more details (I am too exhausted to repeat them), citing another important book that I was too slothful to get up out of my reclining chair to go and check, Sturtevant's Pronunciation of Greek and Latin (see pp. 155-157). And Bob Kennedy writes from Santa Barbara's Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research to provide additional evidence of vacillation with [h-] in Classical Latin:

A poem by Catullus mocks someone who hypercorrectively inserts [h] at the starts of vowel-initial words. The man in the poem is named Arrius, and "hinsidiously" insists on referring to Ionia as Hionia.

There is a discussion at http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Texts/catullus3.html, which includes this:

The Romans had trouble with the initial aspirate / h /, which they sometimes omitted, other times produced without reason. The wide prevalance of Romans as soldiers and adminsitrators in the Greek speaking world may account for the fact that the Greek grammarians of Alexandria felt it necessary to introduce the "smooth and rough breathing" marks at the start of Greek words which have an initial vowel. Everyone in a decent position at Rome had to know Greek, but this Latin Cockneyism would still be a problem for men like Arrius when they tried with difficulty to talk in public.

This morning in Language Log Plaza little knots of staff writers were talking to each other in low voices and then breaking off when I came by. Now when I go into our ground-floor coffee shop, the Latté Linguistica, people get theirs to go so that they won't have to talk to me; they rush off, or pretend to be looking down into their coffee cup as if they thought they'd seen a bug floating in it... I'm being ostracized. I made a remark on Language Log without doing my fact-checking. I am the lowest form of linguistic slime. I am no better than a BBC science reporter.

I am probably not going to be here very much longer. The call will come to present myself in the Big Office where MYL sits, and after a brief and painful talking-to I will be introduced to the security guard who will help me carry the things from my desk to the front door. Then they will shut down my email account and scrub the hard disk on my desktop machine in preparation for handing it to the new staffer who will replace me.

Which, on the bright side, will at least save me from having to answer quite a lot of email. It occurs to me that there are about a billion Catholics, and so far I have only heard from two or three of them.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 25, 2005 12:57 PM