It is probably a good thing that Italian Latin is seen as the standard in many choirs. This particular vernacular pronunciation requires the least amount of thought, since there are only five vowels and you get to use word stress to help make passages more musical. This kind of Latin is most appropriate for Roman music of the sixteenth century (Palestrina, etc.), and Italian Latin music from the mid nineteenth century onward (Verdi’s Requiem, for instance).
Choirs in the United States that think they are using this often are missing the mark in a few places. The following is a table of how this works, based on the one on omniglot.com.
- Doubled vowels are pronounced separately.
- C is pronounced [ʧ] before æ, œ, e, i, or y, and [k] elsewhere.
- G is pronounced [ʤ] before æ, œ, e, i, or y, and [ɡ] elsewhere.
- H is silent, except in mihi and nihil, where it is pronounced [k].
- S is pronounced [z] between vowels.
- SC is pronounced [ʃ] before æ, œ, e, i, or y, and [sk] elsewhere.
- TI is pronounced [tsi] before a vowel and preceded by any letter except s, t, or x. It pronounced [ti] elsewhere.
- U is pronounced [w] when it follows q.
- V is pronounced [v] at the start of a syllable.
- X is pronounced [ɡz] at the beginning of a word, followed by a vowel, and [ks] when followed by a consonant or at the end of a word.
- XC is pronounced [kʃ] before æ, œ, e, i , or y, according to the Liber usualis, but it is also acceptable to pronounce it [kstʃ].
What do choirs usually get wrong?
The foregoing tables from Simon Ager’s site are quite helpful for the basic rules of Italian Latin. A casual reader will miss some seriously different points from English pronunciation that will otherwise creep in.
Do not aspirate consonants.
This is the most obvious marker that a choir has native English or German speakers in it. When one aspirates a consonant, one is adding a puff of air on the release of the consonant that gives it a louder, almost sibilant sound. In IPA, we notate these sounds with a small superscript h immediately after the letter. In the English word tea, for instance, we pronounce it [tʰiː]. When you take the aspiration out, it almost sounds like dee to English ears. The same is the case with the [p] sound and the [k] sound. Pea without aspiration sounds almost like bee, while key without the aspiration almost sounds like gi.
We actually do have the unaspirated version in our language, when there is an s sounded before the letter, as in step, [stɛpʰ].
When you pronounce a [t] in Latin, just place the tip of your tongue right behind the teeth and let the air leave the mouth after the consonant without anything hissing.
Maintain the actual vowels of Italian Latin
Another obvious marker is the [a] sound, which is actually an unrounded, forward vowel. United States choirs have a tendency to make the vowel rounded and more back, as in the o of the American English pronunciation of stop. Opt instead for a nice bright Italian [a] sound. Same with [u], which should be quite “dark” and quiet. The temptation in English is to centralize it a bit, since we don’t really have the pure [u] sound in our language.
Keep the L sound forward
The temptation from the English language is to pronounce the l sound with a swallowed sound sometimes (which we call velarization, since the back of the tongue is raised toward the soft palate, or velum). This is particularly the case after the letters a, o, or u. The Latin word salve should be pronounced in Italian Latin as [ˈsalvɛ]. English speakers can mutate the word all the way to [ˈsɑɫvɛ] without batting an eye. Let the l sit at the front of the mouth with the back of the tongue relaxed.
Don’t forget to double consonants.
Just like in modern Italian, hold a double-consonant with just a little more time.
What about other Italian Latins?
These are trickier, but not too complicated. I’ll focus on Venetian, but be aware that there are others.
One can use this variant for works from composers like Monteverdi, Vivaldi, the Gabrielis, Zarlino, and any other composer working in Venice before the mid-nineteenth century.
The following are some guidelines:
- Endings may be omitted at one’s discretion.
- Consonants are not sounded double (they are often written single in Venetian manuscripts)
- C before the 1700s (Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Zarlino) is pronounced [ts] before æ, œ, e, i, or y. For instance, sacerdos in Monteverdi’s Dixit Dominus settings can be pronounced [saˈtsɛɾdɔs].
- C during and after the 1700s (Vivaldi, etc.) is pronounced [s] before æ, œ, e, i, or y. For instance cinque is pronounced [ˈsiŋkwe].
- E can be either [e] or [ɛ], largely according to instinct, but generally the [e] will make sense in an open syllable (one not followed by a consonant) or before a nasal consonant.
- N is pronounced [ŋ] before any consonant, as in cento being pronounced [seŋto].
- R is tapped, never trilled.
- SC is pronounced [s] before æ, œ, e, i, or y. For instance, pesce is pronounced [pese].
- X, XC, and CC may have been pronounced [z].
One is still reasonably safe pronouncing Italian pieces in the Roman style mentioned at the top of this page, but if one is really looking for an authentic sound in Vivaldi or Monteverdi, give the aforesaid guidelines a try. Have a listen to Vivaldi’s Gloria text read in Venetian Latin.