I was chatting with a fellow choir member about singing in various languages, and how to pronounce them.
There are at least three established systems for pronouncing Latin. You just have to pick one.
When I was taking Latin in high school, we learned what is often called the classical system. The letter ‘v’ was always pronounced ‘w’, ‘j’ was pronounced ‘y’, and ‘c’ and ‘g’ were always pronounced hard. Thus, ‘veni vidi vici‘ came out “way-nee, wee-dee, wee-kee,” and “Julius Caesar” was “Yoo-lee-us Kye-sar.”
The classical system was developed by philologists, mostly German, attempting to reconstruct the way the Roman senator Cato would have spoken in the second century B.C. There are no recordings of Cato’s speeches, and word-of-mouth transmission is not reliable over a span of twenty centuries. In fact, word-of-mouth is what produced modern Italian. How did the scholars find out how Cato spoke? There is evidence in the rhymes found in ancient poetry; more evidence in the way Greek words were respelled when quoted in Roman text; and still more in what happened to Latin words when various national groups adapted them to their vernaculars. There is more direct evidence in ancient language instruction manuals.
Around the end of the 19th century, British schools taught a Latin pronunciation as if the words were English. Around 1870, pedagogues at Oxford and Cambridge urged the teaching of the classical system. Like most teaching reforms, this was controversial. James Hilton used the controversy as a plot element in his 1934 novel “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” For example:
“… This question of Latin pronunciation, for instance–I think I told you years ago that I wanted the new style used throughout the School. The other masters obeyed me; you prefer to stick to your old methods, and the result is simply chaos and inefficiency.”
At last Chips had something tangible that he could tackle. “Oh, that!” he answered scornfully. “Well, I–umph–I admit that I don’t agree with the new pronunciation. I never did. Umph–a lot of nonsense, in my opinion. Making boys say ‘Kickero’ at school when–umph–for the rest of their lives they’ll say ‘Cicero’–if they ever–umph–say it at all. And instead of ‘vicissim‘–God bless my soul–you’d make them say, ‘We kiss’im’! Umph–umph!”
Another system, which I call the church system, is to pronounce Latin words as if they were modern Italian. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has tended to be composed of Italians for centuries, and their pronunciation has been influenced by their native language.
The first time I was in a choir singing “propter magnam gloriam tuam,” we were instructed to sing “mahn-yahm.” I was shocked, because I had been taught the classical system and had learned “mahg-nahm.” But it made sense, because the piece had been written for a Catholic mass.
That leads us to another system, sometimes called the Continental system, in which Latin words are pronounced as if they were German. When we sing a piece in Latin by Bach, Beethoven, or any German composer, we usually use that system. It’s also an appropriate system for pronouncing Latin names of species in biological taxonomy.
In this matter, as in many others, people become attached to the methods they learned with great effort and have adhered to for years of their life, often without realizing that there are alternative methods that are equally valid.
It’s not an issue for choirs and scientists only. We use Latin-derived words and phrases in everyday speech, such as alumnus/a/i/ae, bona fide, prima facie. Advice to lawyers: if you’re in court and the judge mispronounces a Latin phrase, be judicious. Tactfully mispronounce it the same way. (Note: bona fide, ablative case, means “in good faith,” and bona fides just means “good faith,” not a plural.)