Learning the Office Part XIII: Tackling the Latin!

The first part of this series can be found here.

I want to talk in this part about using Latin in the Office. Although the Diurnal provides an English translation of the Office, and that translation may have been used liturgically in some communities, it is really the Latin that is ecclesiastically approved for liturgical purposes. And there are lots of good reasons for saying it in Latin - not the least of which is, if you are saying a traditional Office, you probably want to say it in the language it has traditionally been said in.

Learning to say the Office in Latin is not hard, and doesn't mean sacrificing understanding if you tackle it right.

I'll talk a little bit about getting the pronunciation right, or at least point to some resources to help on that. But I really want to focus here on actually understanding the Latin from the point of view of those who are not classical scholars.  Note that I'm not a linguist or language teacher, so these are just my ideas that may or may not work for you.

The three attentions

On an email list I was once a member of, a monk said that when they were novices they were taught about a hierarchy of 'attentions', which I've adapted a little here:

(1) Attention to the WORDS -- getting the rubrics right, so that we say the correct texts at the correct time; using the appropriate body postures; and saying or singing the words correctly;

(2) Attention to the SENSE -- focusing on the "what " we were saying, the translation of the words;

(3) Attention on GOD -- not worrying about words or sense but simply praying before the Divine Majesty.

The third is the most important. But it is by working on the first two attentions that our attention on God increases, as we penetrate ever more deeply into the meaning of the Office. Up until now we've mainly focused on the rubrics - but as we turn to the Latin, hopefully we start crossing into the territory of the second attention a little more.

Pronouncing Church Latin

So, some basics first. Church Latin is pronounced like spoken Italian. So, if you know Italian, you are set.

If not, there are two things you need to focus on. The first is getting the sounds of the letters right. There are a number of guides to pronunciation on the net, but one that seems quite nice and clear to me can be found here. The second issue is getting the pattern of accents on the words right. The basic rules are as follows:
  • in a two syllable word, accent the first;
  • in a three syllable word, look out for the accent mark in the Diurnal, and stress the syllable marked.
Here, for example is the opening of the first psalm from Compline (MD 260), with the stressed syllables coloured in:

Cum invorem exauvit me Deus justítiæ meæ...
The easiest way to learn though, is to listen to Latin being pronounced correctly. There are lots of resources on the web to help you here, but watch out - a lot of them use classical Latin pronunciation or other variants. Some good starting points are:
Ideally you need to immerse yourself in as much Latin as possible, both to learn how to say it properly and to start understanding it. To really get your ear around the Latin, try listening to some extended readings, such as Fr Z's readings from the Fathers in his podcasts.

Strategies for starting to say it in Latin

If you aren't familiar with Latin, the solution is to start slowly! Start by saying the Pater Noster (Our Father) at each hour in Latin, then add the 'Deus' in adjutorium', and slowly build up.

And focus on learning the meaning as you get the pronunciation right. You don't need to start off understanding the underlying grammar - learn it phrase by phrase, using the translations alongside the text, rather than focusing on each word at first. Maybe take a psalm a week: when you get to that psalm, read the translation first, then say the Latin, then read the translation again, doing this verse by verse. You might even want to put phrases on a flashcard, and test yourself on the meaning regularly.

Once you have built up a small repertoire of psalms learnt this way, start drilling down, picking out which word aligns with what meaning. To help this process along, make up some flashcards for yourself to learn the individual words. You can download a dictionary for all of the words in the psalter here. If you can't find the word you are looking for, it may be because the basic form of the word is not the root form. Try putting it in the dictionary tool here (there are a few of these type of tools around the net).

The great advantage of the Diurnal is that it is very repetitious (just like those nursery rhymes and books kids read over and over and over..), so if you build up slowly, verse by verse of a psalm, you will find it stays in your head! If it doesn't, just flick your eyes across to the translation to refresh your memory.

Tackling the grammar

As you build up your vocabulary, you will probably find you start getting a feel for how Latin works - which endings of verbs mean 'I'" or 'you' or 'him' for example. But it is worth taking a look at one of the various quick and dirty Latin courses on the net to help this process along - the Latin Mass Society's Simplicissimus course is probably a good choice at least as a starting point.

Ideally of course you should do a full Latin course, but see how you go by this method as a starter.

Say it out loud

I'll talk a little bit more about singing in the next part, but I would just note that actually saying the Latin aloud or better still, singing it will really help you learn it faster - there is a reason why children learn all those little ditties! For the Our Father, just use the chant tone the priest uses at Mass. Or sing everything on one note (called recto tono) as a starting point.

And on singing, the next part, which tackles this very subject, can be found here.


Kevin said...

Awesome post! Thank you for approaching this subject. I am working at singing the office in Latin every day. After two years I still make many mistakes, but it is truly amazing how fast one's understanding grows. And it's great feeling part of the two thousand year tradition of the Church.

Terra said...

Thanks Kevin, glad you liked!

CountrySteve said...

Hi, I was just wondering; is there any books on learning Latin you'd recommend? God bless!

Kate Edwards said...

It really depends how much time and effort you want to put into it, and how much fluency you want to gain.

For enough of a familiarity to follow the Office, I would recommend starting with the one suggested in the post, which is a very good introductory approach, focused on the Mass and the Office. The Simplicissimus course can be purchased from the UK Latin Mass Society website.

If you then want to build on this, a more thorough treatment is Collins' Ecclesiastical Latin, and you can buy an accompanying self-study guide. But you would need to devote several hours a week to the task for several months.

Alternatively, for a more thorough foundation, there are several good classical Latin courses out there. One that pays some attention to building vocabulary and familiarity with Church Latin is Jones and Sidwell, Reading Latin.