Church Latin: a brief introduction

Church Latin - Origins of the tradition

Christianity, one of the world's main religious, appeard in 1st century AD. on the territory of the Roman Empire. While Latin was the official language of the state, Greek was the most widely spread language in the Eastern part of the empire. As a result, Greek became the language of the New Testament (more precisely, it was Koine Greek, a simplified variation of Classical Greek). There is, however, an unsubstantiated ancient belief that the Gospel of Mark was originally written in Latin and then translated into Greek. The importance of Latin even in such far corners of the Empire as Palestine is clearly indicated by the use of this Language in the inscription (IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDAEORUM) that was affixed to the cross of Jesus Christ:

19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.

John 19:17-30

This story gave grounds to the long-standing belief that Hebrew, Greek and Latin were the only languaged that can be used for worship, sacraments, and translation of the Holy Bible. The validity of this theory can, of course, be doubted, but in practice Greek and Latin were sufficient to carry the message of the gospel to the people of the universe, as understood by the ancients. Latin was predominantly used by Catholic Christians in the Western part of the Roman empire, Greek remained the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire (and, eventually, Byzantium) for more than a millenium.

Linguistic situation

It is generally considered that Classical Latin achieved its highest level of sophistication in 1st centiry BC. From that point we can observe a steady decline of Classical Latin and the formation of Romance languages. This process was at first kept in check by the mere fact of administrative unity of the Empire, as well as the influence of earlier examples of Latin literature. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the "quality" of Latin suffered a serious setback. From the 6th century on, the Latin language of Christian writers was plagued by lexical and grammatical irregularities. Some examples of Medieval Latin, for instance, found in Merovingian texts, can hardly be described as Latin, despite the authors' hope. Among important phonetic changes that occurred in Latin, the loss of quantitative differentiation of vowels was the most significant. In Classical Latin, vowels could be long or short (the same was true for Greek), and this was reflected in the system of versification used in Ancient Rome. Latin verse consisted of regular patters formed by combinations of long and short syllables. When the difference between long and short vowels became obsolete, this system of versification lost its meaning. This caused further digression from Classical poetry and Classical Latin in general. Not until late Middle Ages and Renaissance, was Latin restored, as much as possible, to its former glory with the help of such scholars as Lorenzo Valla (De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae).

Catholic Latin texts

The Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome is one of the most widely read Latin texts today. It must be noted, however, that a different translation of the Bible, known as Itala was more popular for many centuries. See Interlinear Latin-English New Testament. Other notable Church Latin texts include:

  • Latin prayers.
  • Latin hymns.
  • Latin lives of Catholic saints (Acta Sanctorum).
  • Theological works of Church Fathers.

How to study Church Latin

Classical Latin provides a solid foundation for reading medieval texts. Some schools and universities today offer classes in medieval Latin. There are also books that are geared towards the vocabulary and syntax of Ecclesicastical Latin. I would still recommend studying Classical Latin first. After you are familiar with the grammar and vocabulary, Harrington's "Medieval Latin" is the most enjoyable way to make a transition from Classical to Church Latin. This book includes examples from various types of texts, arranged in chronological order. The book contains a short guide to Medieval Latin: grammar, vocabulary and orthography.

Medieval Latin Dictionaries

Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin You will quickly discover that most dictionaries of Medieval Latin are extremely expensive. This particular dictionary is very affordable, although if will not be enough if you get into the matter with all seriousness.

Niermeyer's Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon I won't even give a link to buy this one, because it is so expensive :) What you have to understand is that dictionaries of medieval Latin are most useful when you either find a word that looks like nothing Classical Latin dictionaries can help you with or if a certain word looks familiar, but its meaning in the present context is highly obscure. This means that more often than not you can easily translate a Church Latin text with the same dictionary that you use to translate Cicero!

Glossary of Later Latin to AD 600 Souter's lexicon is a nice companion to the great Oxford Latin dictionary which goes only as far as 200 AD, thus cutting off a great majority of Christian Latin texts.

Glossarium Mediae at Infimae Latinitatis (Du Cange)] This is one of the best tools, albeit one of the oldest. There are downloadable versions!

Note: It is inevitable that even having all these dictionaries at your dispocal you will encounter words that you won't be able to translate. One major reason for this lies in the fact that Church Latin was very often heavily influenced by vernacular languages. Therefore, you may have to locate a dictionary that deals with a particular variet of Medieval Latin: German, Hungarian, Polish etc.

Popular words and quotes from Church Latin

  • Crux - Cross
  • Deus - God
  • Dies - Day
  • Fides - Faith
  • Gloria - Glory
  • Gratia - Grace
  • Misericordia - Mercy
  • Pax - Peace
  • Peccatum - Sin
  • Rex mundi - King of the World
  • Salus - Salvation
  • Sanctus (Sancta, Sanctum)- Saint
  • A cruce salus - Salvation from Cross
  • Adeste fideles - Come, ye, faithful
  • Ad majorem Dei gloriam - To God's greater glory (Jesuits' motto)
  • Anathema sit - May he (she) be under ban, anathemized
  • Ave maria! - Hail, Mary!
  • Corpus Christi - The body of Christ
  • De profundis - From the depth
  • Dies irae - The day of wrath
  • Filioque - .. and from the Son (a part of the Nicean creed that was added by the Catholic Church)
  • In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancti - In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
  • Lux mundi - The light of the world
  • Mea culpa - My sin, my transgression
  • Nunc dimittis - Now you let (me) go
  • Opus Dei - God's deed
  • Ora pro nobis - Pray for us
  • Pater Noster - Our Father
  • Pax tibi - Peace onto you
  • Sola fide - Only by faith
  • Urbi et orbi - To the city and to the world

See also Latin Bible verses

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  • #history