American Guild of Organists

Pronunciation of Church Latin

Vowels and Diphthongs

Vowels and Diphthongs

Each vowel has one sound; a mixture or sequence of sounds would be fatal to good Latin pronunciation; this is far more important than their exact length.

It is of course difficult to find in English the exact equivalent of the Latin vowels. The examples given here will serve as an indication; the real values can best be learned by ear.

 A is pronounced as in the word Father; never as in the word can. We must be careful to get this open, warm sound, especially when A is followed by M or N as in Sanctus, Nam, etc.

E is pronounced as in Red, men, met; never with the suspicion of a second sound as in ray.

I is pronounced as ee in Feet; never as i in milk or tin.

O is pronounced as in For; never as in go.

U is pronounced as oo in Moon; never as u in custom.

Y is treated as the Latin I.

The pronunciation given for I, O, U, gives the approximate "quality" of the sounds, which may be long or short. Care must be taken to bring out the accent of the word.

mártyr = márteer

As a general rule when two vowels come together each keeps its own sound and constitutes a separate syllable.

diéi = di-é-i     fílii = fí-li-i     eórum = e-órum

This applies to OU and AI

prout = pro-oot     coutúntur = co-oo-toón-toor     áit = áh-eet

 But notice that AE and OE are pronounced as one sound, like E above.


 In AU, EU, and AY, the two vowels form one syllable, but both vowels must be distinctly heard. The principle emphasis and interest belongs to the first which must be sounded purely. If on such a syllable several notes are sung, the vocalization is entirely on the first vowel, the second being heard only on the last note at the moment of passing to the following syllable.

Examples: Lauda, Euge

Example 1

EI is similarly treated only when it occurs in the interjection Hei. Otherwise Mei = Me-i, etc.

U preceded by Q or NG and followed by another vowel as in words like qui and sanguis, keeps its normal sound and is uttered as one syllable with the vowel which follows: qui, quae, quod, quam, sanguis. But notice that cui forms two syllables, and is pronounced as koo-ee. In certain hymns, due to the metre, this word must be treated as one syllable (Cf. Major Bethlem cui contigit. Lauds for the Epiphany).

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The consonants must be articulated with a certain crispness; otherwise the reading becomes unintelligible, weak and nerveless.

C coming before e, ae, oe, i, y is pronounced like ch in church.

caelum = che-loom     Cecília = che-chée-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

Except for these cases C is always pronounced like the English K.

cáritas = káh-ree-tas

CH is always like K (even before E or I).

Cham = Kam     máchina = má-kee-na

G before e, ae, oe, i, y, is soft as in generous.

mági, génitor, Regína

Otherwise G is hard as in Government.

Gubernátor, Vigor, Ego

GN has the softened sound given to these letters in French and Italian.

agneau, Signor, Monsignor

The nearest English equivalent would be N followed by y.
Agneau = Ah-nyoh     Regnum = Reh-nyoom    
Magníficat = Mah-nyeé-fee-caht

H is pronounced K in the two words nihil (nee-keel) and mihi (mee-kee) and their compounds. In ancient books these words are often written nichil and michi. In all other cases H is mute.

J often written as I, is treated as Y, forming one sound with the following vowel.

jam = yam     alleluia = allelóoya     major = ma-yor

R when with another consonant, care must be taken not to omit this sound. It must be slightly rolled on the tongue e.g. Carnis.

Care must be taken not to modify the quality of the vowel in the syllable preceding the R:

Kyrie: Do not say Kear-ee-e but Kée-ree-e.
Sápere: Do not say Sah-per-e but Sáh-pe-re.
Dilígere: Do not say Dee-lee-ger-e but Dee-lée-ge-re.

S is hard as in the English word sea but is slightly softened when coming between two vowels.


TI standing before a vowel and following any letter (except S, X, T) is pronounced tsee.

Patiéntia = pa-t-see-én-t-see-a
Grátia = Grá-t-see-a
Constitútio = Con-stee-tú-t-see-o
Laetítia = Lae-tée-t-see-a
Otherwise the T is like the English T.

TH is always simply T.

Thómas, Cathólicam

X is pronounced ks, slightly softened when coming between two vowels.


XC before e, ae, oe, i, y = KSH.

Excélsis = ek-shél-sees

Before other vowels XC has the ordinary hard sound of the letters composing it.

excussórum = eks-coos-só-room

Y in Latin is reckoned among the vowels and is
sounded like I.

Z is pronounced dz.


All the rest of the consonants B, D, F, K, L, M, N, P, Q, V are pronounced as in English.

Double Consonants must be clearly sounded.

Bello = bel-lo, not the English bellow
Abbas, Joánnem, Innocens, piíssime, terra

In the pronunciation and singing of a word the "Golden Rule" must always be kept:

"Never take a breath just before a fresh syllable of a word."

Example 2

A person who is unable to sing this phrase from the quarter-bar to the end in one breath, must be careful not to breathe just before a fresh syllable (at a or b). The lesser evil would be to breathe after the long note and off its value:

Example 3

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Courtesy of American Guild of Organists

Special thanks to Joe Wagner for assembling this list.

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Last Update 11/21/2005