Singing in Latin

SBO Staff • ChoralGuest EditorialOctober 2013 • October 24, 2013

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By Brandon Hollihan

As high school teachers of vocal music, we are entrusted with many of the keys to success required to create a successful program. In addition to developing tone, rhythm, and strong reading skills, we also have to build a solid understanding of teamwork and musicality in young singers, a process that takes years to develop. But what about the finer details of choral music that transforms sound choral programs into exceptional ones? One of these details is the proper teaching of diction, and there is no language in choral music more prevalent than Ecclesiastical Latin. Vocal music editor and pedagogue Robert Hines noted how important correctly teaching this language is at the beginning of his book, Singers’ Manual of Latin Diction and Phonetics:

“The neglect is incredible when one recalls that Liturgical (Ecclesiastical) Latin is unquestionably ‘the’ second language of the choral conductor and choral singer, and certainly a basic language for the professional who performs solo recitals, chamber music, or the large choral-symphonic masterpieces of Bach, Bruckner, Dvorak, Haydn, Mozart, and Verdi.”

In the world of singing, Latin is no dead language, as it is often the language of choice for major choral works (such as a Requiem or Mass) and can be found regularly on contest lists throughout the United States. As teachers, we need to understand the nuances as best we can, so that our students can learn the language as efficiently as possible, and with as few barriers as possible.


When teaching Ecclesiastical Latin, we can begin by emphasizing the fact that there are only five vowel sounds: ‘ah’ /a/; ‘eh’ /ɛ/; ‘ee’ /i/; ‘oh’ /ɔ/ and ‘oo’ /u/. Writing these on a chalkboard or Smart Board and having students sound out the vowels is extremely helpful to familiarizing them with the longer sounds and freedom the vowels have from diphthongs, especially when compared with English. In vowel combinations (such as “deo” in “Gloria in excelsis deo”) the singer needs to sound and connect each vowel. For example, here we have the Ecclesiastical Latin followed by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):

  • Latin: Gloria in excelsis deo.
  • IPA: Glɔri:a in ekʃɛlsis dɛ: ɔ.

In this well-known phrase from the Catholic Mass, there are a total of nine vowels and nine syllables. We observe this occurrence in the opening lines of the Ave Verum Corpus as well (using Mozart’s setting):


Latin: Ave, ave verum corpus.

Natum de Maria virgine.

IPA: avɛ, avɛ vɛrum kɔrpus.

natum dɛ mari:a virdʒinɛ.


Here there are 17 vowels and 17 syllables, indicating the symmetrical relationship in Latin between the two. Many teachers call these vowel combinations “diphthongs,” but if you choose to label them as such they have to be separated from diphthongs in languages that have fewer syllables than vowels (for example, “mein” and “schein” have multiple vowels but only one syllable in German). Some of the vowel combinations include:

  • “au”, pronounced [a:u], as in the word “exaudi” [ɛgsa:udi]
  • “ay”, which occurs less frequently than “au”, is pronounced [a:i], as in “raymundi” [ra:imundi]
  • “eu”, proncouned [ɛ:u]

Let us also take a look at the importance of maintaining [ɛ] as open and long, something that choirs at all levels, let alone high school, can struggle with. Consider the following line from the Gloria of the Catholic Mass:


Latin: Dòmine Fili unigènite,

Jesu Christe, Dòmine Deus,

Agnus Dei,

IPA: dɔminɛ fili unidʒɛnitɛ

yɛzu kristɛ dɔminɛ dɛ:us aɲus dɛ:i


Using the rule of only five pure vowels, we never hear /e/ (“eh”) if the choir is properly singing. This rule is simple to follow, yet easy to break because of vernacular in the English language; never close the vowel from /ɛ/ to /e/!


Ecclesiastical Latin consonants share many similarities to English consonants, although there are some differences in a few singular consonants and consonant clusters. Without proper understanding of the diction, the word “excelsis” might be sung as “ex-CHEL-sees” [ɛksçɛlsis], which does not fit into the standards of Ecclesiastical Latin. The “x” in Latin only has a “ks” sound when prefaced by a vowel, such as in the word “pax” (pAHks). Returning once again to the Ave Verum:


Latin: Ave verum corpus, natum

de Maria Virgine

IPA: avɛ vɛrum kɔrpus natum

dɛ mari:a virdʒinɛ


Latin: vere passum, immolatum,

in cruce pro homine,

IPA: vɛrɛ passum immɔlatum

in crutʃɛ prɔ ɔminɛ


The singular consonants in this example are fairly easy to follow, such as /v/ in “ave,” /p/ and /s/ in “passum,” and /n/, /t/ and /m/ in “natum.” The combined consonants are trickier. In “virgine,” the single “g” is pronounced as /dʒ/, like in the word “jet.” (This is also true for “g” in between two vowels, such as in “niger” /nidʒɛr/)

There are several other nuances of Latin consonants to examine:

  • The letters “gn” together form /ɲ/, close to the word “hung.” (magna [maɲa])
  • Also note a few other changes in consonants. “C” at the beginning of a word is always hard /k/, such as in “corpus” [kɔrpus], but sounds as [tʃ] (like the “ch” in “checkers”) when between two vowels (example: “cruce” [krutʃe] ).
  • As previously referred to, “xc” becomes [kʃ] in Ecclesiastical Latin. This occurrence is most often seen in the phrase “Gloria in excelsis deo”, which begins the Gloria section of the Mass. The proper IPA reads, [glɔri:a in ɛkʃɛlsis dɛ:ɔ]. Common misnomers of “excelsis” include [ɛksçɛlsis] and [egʃɛlsis], as if one were saying “eggshell” at the beginning – a totally inappropriate pronunciation.
  • Finally, an important rule that is often forgotten: “h” is silent in Ecclesiastical Latin. While many of us grow up hearing “Hosanna” pronounced [hɔsanna], this is incorrect and there should be a small glottal instead before singing [ɔ], and thereby singing [ɔsanna].
Brandon Hollihan

Brandon Hollihan

In Conclusion

Whenever we try to teach adolescents a new concept in music, whether it is intonation, proper breathing, phrasing, or diction, we need to allow ourselves patience and time for our students to acquire these skills. Many teaching authorities say that it can take up to two weeks to establish a new procedure or teach a new skill in the classroom. Keeps this philosophy in mind in your rehearsal planning when introducing any foreign language piece. If you only want to spend the last week of rehearsal polishing the music for performance, you should probably begin teaching diction no later than one month before the concert. Ecclesiastical Latin is a brilliant, sacred language that is just as truly alive today as it was in the Medieval Age, and unlocking the secrets behind its diction can open our students to an abundant quantity of literature that is suitable and well known amongst audiences worldwide.

Brandon Hollihan teaches vocal music at Whetstone High School in Columbus (Ohio) City Schools, and is also the choir director and organist at Northwest United Methodist Church in Upper Arlington, where he directed a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in December, 2012. Hollihan has also served as chorus master for the Opera Project Columbus and a guest conductor for the Clintonville Community Chorus. He earned dual Masters degrees from The Ohio State University in choral conducting and vocal pedagogy, and earned his Bachelors in vocal performance from the University of Notre Dame. He resides in northwest Columbus with his wife, pianist Junghwa Lee.

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