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Latin: S or Z between two vowels?

My original post, Feb 24--

To Listers who have grappled in a serious way with the problems of Latin pronunciation:

I am dismayed that at this late stage of my professional life I am, once again, questioning the way in which I ask our singers to pronounce ecclesiastical Latin. I am referring to standard, Vatican (i.e., Italianate) pronunciation. I am not working with German/Latin or any other variety of the language used for the Roman Catholic liturgy.
Many years ago I made the difficult change from voiced "s"(= z sound)--which is what I'd been singing for years--to unvoiced or sibillant "s" because various authorities stated that it was correct. Example of one source probably known to most of you: John Moriarty, "Diction--Italian, Latin, French,German--the sounds and 81 exercises for singing them"(Boston: E.C. Schirmer, 1975). Page 161, "s always receives the unvoiced sound [s]."
Now a highly esteemed colleague says that "s" between two vowels is pronounced "z", e.g., miserere = mizerere, Jesu Jezu. These are exactly the tendancies I've been fighting for years! I found the same rule in a guide "Liturgical Pronunciation of Latin," xeroxed--but with no identification of the source. I just looked in Moriarty, in his Italian section, and find that intervocalic "s" is voiced. Hmmmm.
Any other authoritative sources for one or the other? Another bone of contention: "i" in the word "in" as in "in gloria Patri." My husband, a scholar of Classical Greek and Latin (and he knows that church Latin differs from what he does) says that "een gloria" is not correct, it should be closer to the English "in." He thinks that singers may modify the vowel towards ee for reasons that have to do with singing, not linguistic correctness. I tend to disagree with him here (as I do sometimes on other subjects), even though I was not brought up on "een." Any thoughts on this?

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Bryce Hayes, Barbara Jones, Timm Adams, Charles E. Ruzicka, and Rick Stewart requested I post a compilation. I found the responses to be so interesting and varied that I copied all of them here. Only spaces and additional contact info have been eliminated. Sorry if the format turns out to be difficult to read. Many thanks to all who responded. Mimi

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Sheridan Chapin Feb 24
The St. Cecilia Chorus

The St. Cecilia Chorus ( , a 150-voice chorus conducted by David Randolph, has a long-standing annual subscription series in Carnegie Hall and continues to use the Vatican (Italianate) pronunciation - i.e., as you say, the unvoiced or sibillant "s" sound in "miserere" ("mee-seh-reh-reh") and the double-e sound for the letter "i" ("een" for "in").

Our research has indicated that this is THE correct pronunciation. I'm sorry I no longer have the sources, but we remain convinced and diligent in following this pronunciation. We have a Latin pronunciation guide on the Members page of our website. If you would be interested, perhaps I can send you a copy.

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Tony Martinez Feb 24

Just as a side thought, we spend so much time worrying about whether Latin should be done in the Italianate, Germanic, or French pronunciations (one Master's candidate I sung under while in school had us perform the DECADE SPECIFIC French Latin for the Charpentier Te Deum). As much as we rally around period performance and demanding adherence to specifics of the time/text/historical context, shouldn't we make some allowance, just a consideration on how Latin would be sung by a 21st century American choir?

Just a soapbox issue for me
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John Hoffacker Feb 24
Music Director, Church of the Epiphany, Plymouth MN
Conductor, Mississippi Valley Chorale, Columbia Heights MN

Scholars differ in their views, so I suggest you decide what you want, then stick to it until someone comes up with a very compelling case for changing the rules. Your choirs will certainly appreciate the consistency. They have enough problems with the notes.

Many scholars have offered their opinions based on extensive research, but what emerges is a consensus that there is no single, globally-accepted set of rules of pronunciation. Regional differences affect pronunciation everywhere, and traditions also play a role. Choirs everywhere vary in their pronunciation - even the best ones.

I believe singers want to get to the music as quickly as possible, so do your research, make a decision, teach clearly what you want, and bring the music to life. As a scholar you'll want to keep an open mind, but set the bar high for changing your mind.

PS - I vote for [z] between vowels and [i] for the letter e everywhere.

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Jude Judenote(a) Feb 24

I know where you are coming from...but where is it going? Do what sounds best and makes your choir sing musically. "Een " is going to
produce a brighter, cleaner = healthier sound. Not Eeeeen, nor "in", but a modified, "Een". Not "z" nor "s", blend the sound. Singing Latin.

You will have a happier choir, if they are singing better.

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Gary Fisher Feb 24
Director, Burlington Civic Chorale

Take a look at the always useful and informative, "Singer's Manual of Latin Diction and Phonetics" by Robert S. Hines. I have always found his text to be useful and in congruence with the Liber Usualis which is the final word on Roman Latin, but who wants to dig through that?

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Ann McKinley, Ph.D. Feb 24
One-time Benedictine

I sympathize with your problem, Mimi, though since I am not a choral person, nothing resonates. I do wonder over the fuss made about some of the sounds of Church Latin. You might console yourself with the
thought that the sounds of historical Church Latin must have varied from country to country. Seems to me I've encountered such references. Stands to reason the French, Germans, Brits, and Czechs etc. etc. sounded different from one another though possibly they were expected to follow Rome on this. Nations and religious orders didn't always agree. I think it's wonderful you are at least singing the Latin!
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Anthony Maydwell Feb 24
Lecturer in Music
West Australian Academy of Performing Arts
Faculty of Education and Arts
Edith Cowan University

Of greater authority than Moriaty you should consult:
Singing in Latin by Harold Copeman and Singing Early Music by McGee, Rigg and Klausner. Both deal with the issues of time and place which has a great bearing on the correct approach you should be applying to Latin pronunciation.

To further complicate matters one should also be aware of the movement of musicians and how this might impact upon individual styles.

Alternatively, you could choose the path of Roman Latin and apply it generally. It really depends how profoundly you are going to apply historically informed performance practices. In which case, get hold of an old Liber Usualis with rubrics. This usually (no pun intended) contains a foreword on Latin pronunciation. It has also been published separately in a number of languages. I have one in French as well as a Liber with English rubrics.

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Robert F. Farr Feb 24
Music Director, The Cantabile Singers
St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, Boulder CO

I will agree with your sources - (Mine originally is/was the "Liber Usualis" along with other "authorities."

S = z between two consonants
i = ee (without exception)

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Timothy Mount tmount(a) Feb 24
Professor and Director of Choral Music
Department of Music
Stony Brook University

I liked what Fiora Contino of Indiana University, an excellent Italian/American choral conductor, once taught me: a z-ish s for words like "eleison," i.e., a mix of z and s. Rilling used to (maybe still does) go for things like "Zanctus" but I believe that's a regional German pronunciation. If we're doing Italianate Latin, then I believe "i" should be "ee" but, of course, can always be modified in the upper range to [I] or [y].

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David Griggs-Janower Feb 24

A thorny problem, at least the s. There's no right answer, just as the intervocallis s is sometimes voiced and sometimes unvoiced in Italy, depending where you live. The general textbook choice is voiced for both Italian and Latin (I teach Latin and Italian diction for singers and have investigated it much), but because native speakers aren't consistent, some supposedly authorative texts are free to choose one or the other. If you listen to any five italians say "cosi" you'll hear two different S's. Ultimately, I don't think there IS a correct "Vatican" s for between vowels. And there are
certainly differnces in England's "italianate Latin" and America's "italianate Latin." I think you just can't say, this way is right and the other wrong.

I teach the voiced intervocalic S in class but I ask my singers to make it a little less Z-ish when they sing!

As for the "i," I think your husband is all wet! In England and America we have adjusted the "i" of "in nomini patri" to be [In] instead of [i], but that isn't "vatican Latin." It's just convenient. And no one would every say

NoMIHnIH parTRIH instead of nomeenee patree. We just can't see "eee" like we do in the US, with a wide, ugly sound; the Italian eee is more beautiful!

I've read many sources on Latin pronunciation. I am no authority, I only read a lot, but I can say authoritatively that the sources disagree!

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Paul F. Mueller Feb 24
Music Department - N416
Hunter College of CUNY

Consult the book Harold Copeman's book SINGING IN LATIN.

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Janet Yamron Feb 24

I always refer to the book "Latin Pronunciation according to Roman Usage" originally published by the St Gregory Guild in Philadelphia.

"i" = een
"s" = no "z" sound in Latin for this.
I believe you are correct to stick to what you have learned.

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Carolyn Paulin (DMA, choral music, Univ. of Illinois) Feb 24
Producer, Program Host
98.7 WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network
Chicago, IL 60625

Please look at Ron Jeffers book Translation and Annotations of Choral Repertoire - volume 1: Sacred Latin Texts. It should give you what you need. It's available through "earthsongs" publishing - 220 nw 29th street, corvallis, oregon 97330. ( the lower case on everything is Ron's preference)

It's a great text with great translations and pronunciation help.

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John Howell Feb 24
Virginia Tech Department of Music

I have copied the pronunciation rules from the Liber (English version) and put them on line at You might find it helpful. Quoting:

S is hard as in the English word sea but is slightly softened when coming between two vowels: misericórdia.
C coming before e, ae, oe, i, y is pronounced like ch in Church::caelum = che-loom; Cecília = che-cheé-lee-a.
CC before the same vowels is pronounced T-ch : ecce = et-che; síccitas = seét-chee-tas.

SC before the same vowels is pronounced like Sh in shed.: Descéndit = de-shén-deet.

I is pronounced as ee in Feet, never as i in milk or tin.
If you accept our brothers at Solesmes as authorities, that's what they say. I'm not familiar with the other authorities you mention.

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Paul S. Meers, DMus Feb 25
Director of Choral Music
Assistant Professor of Music
American University of Beirut

I understand your concern. I have the same one. My advice: relax, it's actually not that big a deal. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that anything "authoritative" in this area is just mythological. As humans, we look for the definitive answer, when maybe - and in this case certainly - there is none. Remember that American singers take Moriarty as the authority, which reflects American Roman Catholic prescription. In 2007, prescribed Catholic church Latin in other parts of the world means something slightly different, especially in vowel closure. French, Italian and German singers will not open E and O excessively, as they often are in the US. This affects blend and tuning in a real way.

When we realize that language, and especially pronunciation, has infintesimal variety, these details of "correctness" in pronunciation become less daunting. Latin in particular has, throughout its history, been subject to the all the vernacular pronunciations where it was introduced. Thus as you probably know, the British church tradition was to pronounce the words as they looked with English, with diphthongs and everything.

My point is, do YOU want your singers to use intervocalic voiced s in Italianate American Latin? Surprise, you now have another choice to make as a conductor! You also have authoritative support for your decision: The xerox (which I bet is introductory material to the Liber usualis), your esteemed colleague and your husband, and then the received American tradition, where every s is unvoiced. Also, don't take Moriarty's Italian section and apply it to Latin; the Italians use different practices for Latin, though similar to Italian.

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Margaret Collins Stoop Feb 25

Please, please, please, on my father's behalf, refer to his first extant primer on the subject and very easily understandable Primer on Ecclesiatical Latin.

My father was a devout Catholic who taught sometimes less than interested seminarians the ways of Ecclesiastical - as opposed to vulgate - latin. Less than satisfied with the only existing source of help in ecclesiastical (as opposed to vulgate) latin (there was only a glossary), my father wrote the first grammar - primer - on the subject. His name was John F. Collins. It is published by Catholic University of America Press. I remember this, it was published when I was a senior in high school (1985).

It's funny: now, - as a choral director - I refer to his text, wishing he were here. And many other choral directors whom I know wish that as well....

He was not only a devout Catholic, but an avid singer. He passed at an unbelievably young age, at a time when he was still an avid singer with the New York Choral Society and the St. Agnes Men and Boys Choir of Rockville Centre, NY.

I dare say that his translations of texts meant as much to him in the choral realm as they did in the liturgical realm.

There is a very clear introduction to pronunciation in his Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin. My father would be tickled to know that his book was helping others sing God's word.

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Charles E. Ruzicka Feb 25
Professor Emeritus of Music
MSU Moorhead
Moorhead, MN 56563
Phone: 701-239-0396

In liturgical usage, as I understand it, "s" between two vowels remains "s., and "in Gloria" is "een".

Several years ago, when singing with a resident festival choir in Austria, we were asked to use the "Germanic" pronunciation of the Latin. Thus "in" remained IN and the "s", in the above case, was "Z". There of course, were other alterations as in : Kyrie (curie) sorry no IPA function on this computer.

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Hank Dahlman, DMA Feb 25
Professor of Music
Director, Graduate Studies in Music
Director, Choral Studies
Wright State University Dayton, OH 45435-0001

My understanding is the same one you *ahem*, voice (rather, un-voice). My reading of Moriarity and other sources, like "The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to Roman Usage," reinforce your using the unvoiced [s] rather than the [z] sound. Btw, that handy little book by M. de Angelis (usually about $7.00) is available from most outlets and libraries, music dealers, etc. If memory serves, it is a translation of the text approved by the Vatican back in the early 20th century, and is in fact published by GIA, which is a major Roman Catholic publishing house.

Another source which will lead you to other good ones is the Diction Domain website ( Among other things listed in
their Latin section is a wonderful book by Harold Copeman, "Singing in Latin." That's a great source, too.

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Michael Hartney Feb 25
Ottawa (Canada)

The correct way to pronounce a language is learned by listening to the native speakers of that language. But Latin is a dead language: it has no native speakers. All those who use Latin follow rules laid down by some authority or other, and the authorities do not always agree.

Many people think the ultimate authority on Church Latin has to be the Liber usualis, the Vatican-approved book of chant published early in the 20th century for use in all Catholic churches. It has a set of rules for the correct pronunciation of Church Latin. But they are not always clear or easy to follow.

For instance, the Liber says that "s" is unvoiced, but between vowels it is slightly voiced but not so much as to sound like "z". I find that just baffling. I can't see how you can begin giving "s" a voiced sound without it sounding like "z". I can't see any intermediate position between "s" (unvoiced) and "z". So both camps in the matter of the pronunciation of intervocalic "s" can rely on the Liber: those who think it should be voiced will rely on the Liber's claim that it is slightly voiced, and those who say it shouldn't, on the Liber's claim that it shouldn't sound like "z".

Many other authorities state quite simply that intervocalic "s" is voiced. And that corresponds to the way most people instinctively would pronounce words such as "rosa". It is probably most conductors' experience that, if you want intervocalic "s" to be unvoiced, you have to beat it out of people.

On the subject of vowels, the Liber Usualis states quite clearly that each vowel has a single pronunciation, and not two pronunciations -- one open, the other closed -- as in most other languages. So, if I read the Liber correctly, "in" should be pronounced "een". But that sounds too much like the cartoonish Mexican who says "heem" for "him".

Many other authorities claim that vowels in Church Latin do have both an open and a closed pronunciation. And again, I think that is quite
instinctive: most people, when coming upon the Latin word "intimus" would pronounce the first "i" as in "kin" and the second as in keen", just as they would pronounce the first "o" of "Domino" as in English "Mom" and the second as in "no", or the first "e" of "ecce" as in "set" and the second as in "say" (without the English diphthong-like sound).

The upshot of this is that some of the rules in the Liber usualis are
difficult to apply, and some are disputed by other authorities and widely disregarded in practice.

Personally, I don't think the pronunciation of "in" or intervocalic "s" matters very much. Using one pronunciation instead of the other isn't going to make the text unintelligible to the audience, since they don't understand the language in the first place. And the difference between the two pronunciations is not very noticeable, especially when singing. I would go with the pronunciation that is most instinctive: "in" as in English and voiced intervocalic "s". And if anyone complains that this is wrong, the simple answer is that the authorities just do not agree. There is no point arguing when authorities do not agree.

There are other pronunciation problems in Church Latin that are a lot more important, namely those that make the singers appear to be too thick or too sloppy to learn sounds that are not native to English. I'm thinking of (a) pronouncing "r" and "l" as in English (so that "Gloria" sounds like a girl's name), and (b) failing to eliminate the English diphthong at the end of closed vowels such as "o" ("Domino" ending with "oh-www") and especially "e" ("Domine" ending with "ayyyy"). Now those are really serious matters.

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Brad Hayashi Feb 25
Mt. Whitney High School

Try this link from the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi website:

It seems to corroborate what your husband is saying. This makes me stop to think twice and to have a reaction as you did. Now my question is, do I have my students use this pronounciation and have ignorant adjudicators mark us down for it?

However, this link from the EWTN Catholic Global Network seems to corroborate what we have been teaching all along:

As far as the "s" is concerned, it seems to me that it would follow the same characteristics of Italian. Why would Italian Catholics pronounce their "s" differently at their church service if they changed the Latin pronunciation anyway?

And the "I" issue could be one of the length of the vowel. In the readings I've seen, both in the first website and in others, it seems to infer that your husband could be correct. For example, the "i" in "miserere" has a longer length than "in," therefore "in" would have more of a short "i" quality to it.

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Lester Seigel Feb 26
Birmingham-Southern College

Wow, Mimi. Thanks for this post. You have touched a nerve with me, as I am in the same quest. In fact, I'm devoting part of my upcoming
sabbatical next year to this. I've had wonderful success with some

Josquin motets this year in two choral groups, trying to perform them in the Latin pronunciation Josquin's singers may have used. An interesting resource for me has been Copeman's "Singing in Latin," and an even better one is Timothy McGee's "Singing Early Music," published by Indiana Univ Press. I have found that this is not a heavily-researched field, and I'm looking forward to delving more into this!

Nice to have a compatriot--I share all your qualms and questions. It's definitely brought into question a lot of what we were all taught about pronunciation of Latin. But more and more it seems questionable to sing early music in a Latin style which was only codified by the Vatican centuries later, and which was in all likelihood a foreign style to the singers performing, and may have been even to the 'inner ear' of the composer writing for them, no matter how well-traveled he/she was.

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Richard A. Jobe, Coach/Accompanist Feb 26
School of Music
University of Central Oklahoma

The voiced [s] is an example of "-ized" Latin (ex. Italian"ized", French"ized", German"ized"). All of these various vernacular forms of Latin are quite satisfying when singing Latin works by composers of various nationalities. I believe one must make informed personal decisions regarding what "form" of Latin to employ. I have sometimes used the voiced [s] sound to encourage resonance & vowel energy when it was previously lacking. Bottom line: one should do what works best for the available resources. The final product should always be music which conveys thought, emotion, and deep meaning!

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Allen Simon March 7
ChoralNet Chair of Website Development

I'm a little late in responding to this, but it's my observation that, although it might feel quite different to the singer, there
isn't a significant difference in sound between [s] and [z] once it
gets to the audience.

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Mimi S. Daitz