« Fifth Lateran Council Church Latin Latin Church »

Church Latin

Ecclesiastical Latin

In the present instance these words are taken to mean the Latin we find in the official textbooks of the Church (the Bible and the Liturgy), as well as in the works of those Christian writers of the West who have undertaken to expound or defend Christian beliefs.


Ecclesiastical differs from classical Latin especially by the introduction of new idioms and new words. (In syntax and literary method, Christian writers are not different from other contemporary writers.) These characteristic differences are due to the origin and purpose of ecclesiastical Latin. Originally the Roman people spoke the old tongue of Latium known as prisca latinitas. In the third century B. C. Ennius and a few other writers trained in the school of the Greeks undertook to enrich the language with Greek embellishments. This attempt was encouraged by the cultured classes in Rome, and it was to these classes that henceforth the poets, orators, historians, and literary coteries of Rome addressed themselves. Under the combined influence of this political and intellectual aristocracy was developed that classical Latin which has been preserved for us in greatest purity in the works of Caesar and of Cicero. The mass of the Roman populace in their native ruggedness remained aloof from this hellenizing influence and continued to speak the old tongue. Thus it came to pass that after the third century B. C. there existed side by side in Rome two languages, or rather two idioms: that of the literary circles or hellenists (sermo urbanus) and that of the illiterate (sermo vulgaris) and the more highly the former developed the greater grew the chasm between them. But in spite of all the efforts of the purists, the exigencies of daily life brought the writers of the cultured mode into continual touch with the uneducated populace, and constrained them to understand its speech and make it understand them in turn; so that they were obliged in conversation to employ words and expressions forming part of the vulgar tongue. Hence arose a third idiom, the sermo cotidianus, a medley of the two others, varying in the mixture of its ingredients with the various periods of time and the intelligence of those who used it.


Classical Latin did not long remain at the high level to which Cicero had raised it. The aristocracy, who alone spoke it, were decimated by proscription and civil war, and the families who rose in turn to social position were mainly of plebeian or foreign extraction, and in any case unaccustomed to the delicacy of the literary language. Thus the decadence of classical Latin began with the age of Augustus, and went on more rapidly as that age receded. As it forgot the classical distinction between the language of prose and that of poetry, literary Latin, spoken or written, began to borrow more and more freely from the popular speech. Now it was at this very time that the Church found herself called on to construct a Latin of her own and this in itself was one reason why her Latin should differ from the classical. There were two other reasons however: first of all the Gospel had to be spread by preaching, that is, by the spoken word moreover the heralds of the good tidings had to construct an idiom that would appeal, not alone to the literary classes, but to the whole people. Seeing that they sought to win the masses to the Faith, they had to come down to their level and employ a speech that was familiar to their listeners. St. Augustine says this very frankly to his hearers: "I often employ", he says, "words that are not Latin and I do so that you may understand me. Better that I should incur the blame of the grammarians than not be understood by the people" (In Psal. cxxxviii, 90). Strange though it may seem, it was not at Rome that the building up of ecclesiastical Latin began. Until the middle of the third century the Christian community at Rome was in the main a Greek speaking one. The Liturgy was celebrated in Greek, and the apologists and theologians wrote in Greek until the time of St. Hippolytus, who died in 235. It was much the same in Gaul at Lyons and at Vienne, at all events until after the days of St. Irenaeus. In Africa, Greek was the chosen language of the clerics, to begin with, but Latin was the more familiar speech for the majority of the faithful, and it must have soon taken the lead in the Church, since Tertullian, who wrote some of his earlier works in Greek, ended by employing Latin only. And in this use he had been preceded by Pope Victor, who was also an African, and who, as St. Jerome assures, was the earliest Christian writer in the Latin language.

But even before these writers various local Churches must have seen the necessity of rendering into Latin the texts of the Old and New Testaments, the reading of which formed a main portion of the Liturgy. This necessity arose as soon as the Latin speaking faithful became numerous, and in all likelihood it was felt first in Africa. For a time improvised oral translations sufficed, but soon written translations were required. Such translations multiplied. "It is possible to enumerate", says St. Augustine, "those who have translated the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, but not those who have translated them into Latin. In sooth in the early days of faith whoso possessed a Greek manuscript and thought he had some knowledge of both tongues was daring enough to undertake a translation" (De doct. christ., II, xi). From our present point of view the multiplicity of these translations, which were destined to have so great an influence on the formation of ecclesiastical Latin, helps to explain the many colloquialisms which it assimilated, and which are found even in the most famous of these texts, that of which St. Augustine said: "Among all translations the Itala is to be preferred, for its language is most accurate, and its expression the clearest" (De doct. christ., II, xv). While it is true that many renderings of this passage have been given, the generally accepted one, and the one we content ourselves with mentioning here, is that the Itala is the most important of the Biblical recensions from Italian sources, dating from the fourth century, used by St. Ambrose and the Italian authors of that day, which have been partially preserved to us in many manuscripts and are to be met with even in St. Augustine himself. With some slight modifications its version of the deuterocanonical works of the Old Testament was incorporated into St. Jerome's "Vulgate".

Elements from African Sources

But even in this respect Africa had been beforehand with Italy. As early as A. D. 180 mention is made in the Acts of the Scilltitan martyrs of a translation of the Gospels and of the Epistles of St. Paul. "In Tertullian's time", says Harnack, "there existed translations, if not of all the books of the Bible at least of the greater number of them." It is a fact. however, that none of them possessed any predominating authority, though a few were beginning to claim a certain respect. And thus we find Tertullian and St. Cyprian using those by preference, as appears from the concordance of their quotations. The interesting point in these translations made by many hands is that they form one of the principal elements of Church Latin: they make up, so to say, the popular contribution. This is to be seen in their disregard for complicated inflections, in their analytical tendencies, and in the alterations due to analogy. Pagan littérateurs, as Arnobius tells (Adv. nat., I, xlv-lix), complained that these texts were edited in a trivial and mean speech, in a vitiated and uncouth language.

But to the popular contribution the more cultivated Christians added their share in forming the Latin of the Church. If the ordinary Christian could translate the "Acts of St. Perpetua", the "Pastor" of Hermas the "Didache", and the "First Epistle" of Clement it took a scholar to put into Latin the "Acta Pauli" and St. Irenaeus's treatise "Adversus haereticos", as well as other works which seem to have been translated in the second and third century. It is not known to what country these translators belonged, but, in the case of original works, Africa leads the way with Tertullian, who has been rightly styled the creator of the language of the Church. Born at Carthage, he studied and perhaps taught rhetoric there: he studied law and acquired a vast erudition; he was converted to Christianity, raised to the priesthood, and brought to the service of the Faith an ardent zeal and a forceful eloquence to which the number and character of his works bear witness. He touched on every subject apologetics, polemics, dogma, discipline, exegesis. He had to express a host of ideas which the simple faith of the communities of the west had not yet grasped. With his fiery temperament, his doctrinal rigidness, and his disdain for literary canons, he never hesitated to use the pointed word, the everyday phrase. Hence the marvellous exactness of his style, its restless vigour and high relief, the loud tones as of words thrown impetuously together: hence, above all, a wealth of expressions and words, many of which came then for the first time into ecclesiastical Latin and have remained there ever since. Some of these are Greek words in Latin dress - baptisma, charisma, extasis, idolatria, prophetia, martyr, etc. -- some are given a Latin termination -- daemonium, allegorizare, Paracletus, etc. -- some are law terms or old Latin words used in a new sense -- ablutio, gratia, sacramentum, saeculum, persecutor, peccator. The greater part are entirely new, but are derived from Latin sources and regularly inflected according to the ordinary rules affecting analogous words -- annunciatio, concupiscentia, christianismus, coeaeternus, compatibilis, trinitas, vivificare, etc. Many of these new words (more than 850 of them) have died out, but a very large portion are still to be found in ecclesiastical use; they are mainly those that met the need of expressing strictly Christian ideas. Nor is it certain that all of these owe their origin to Tertullian, but before his time they are not to be met with in the texts that have come down to us, and very often it is he who has naturalized them in Christian terminology.

The part St. Cyprian played in this building of the language was less important. The famous Bishop of Carthage never lost that respect for classical tradition which he inherited from his education and his previous profession of rhetor; he preserved that concern for style which led him to the practice of the literary methods so dear to the rhetors of his day. His language shows this even when he is dealing with Christian topics. Apart from his rather cautious imitation of Tertullian's vocabulary, we find in his writings not more than sixty new words, a few Hellenisms -- apostata, gazophylacium -- a few popular words or phrases - magnalia, mammona -- or a few words formed by added inflections -- apostatare, clarificatio. In St. Augustine's case it was his sermons preached to the people that mainly contributed to ecclesiastical Latin, and present it to us at its best; for, in spite of his assertion that he cares nothing for the sneers of the grammarians, his youthful studies retained too strong a hold on him to permit of his departing from classical speech more than was strictly necessary. He was the first to find fault with the use of certain words common at the time, such as dolus for dolor, effloriet for florebit, ossum for os. The language he uses includes, besides a large part of classical Latin and the ecclesiastical Latin of Tertullian and St. Cyprian, borrowings from the popular speech of his day -- incantare, falsidicus, tantillus, cordatus -- and some new words or words in new meaning -- spiritualis, adorator, beatificus, aedificare, meaning to edify, inflatio, meaning pride, reatus, meaning guilt, etc. It is, we think, useless to pursue this inquiry into the realm of Christian inscriptions and the works of Victor of Vito, the last of these Latin writers, as we should only find a Latin peculiar to certain individuals rather than that adopted by any Christian communities. Nor shall we delay over Africanisms, i. e. characteristics peculiar to African writers. The very existence of these characteristics, formerly so strongly held by many philologists, is nowadays generally questioned. In the works of several of these African writers we find a pronounced love for emphasis, alliteration, and rhythm, but these are matters affecting style rather than vocabulary. The most that can be said is that the African writers take more account of Latin as it was spoken (sermo cotidianus) but this speech was no peculiarity of Africa.

St. Jerome's Contribution

After the African writers no author had such influence on the upbuilding of ecclesiastical Latin as St. Jerome had. His contribution came mainly along the lines of literary Latin. From his master, Donatus, he had received a grammatical instruction that made him the most literary and learned of the Fathers, and he always retained a love for correct diction, and an attraction towards Cicero. He prized good writing so highly that he grew angry whenever he was accused of a solecism; one-half of the words he uses are taken from Cicero and it has been computed that besides employing, as occasion required, the words introduced by earlier writers, he himself is responsible for three hundred and fifty new words in the vocabulary of ecclesiastical Latin; yet of this number there are hardly nine or ten that may fitly be considered as barbarisms on the score of not conforming to the general laws of Latin derivatives. "The remainder", says Goelzer, "were created by employing ordinary suffixes and were in harmony with the genius of the language." They are both accurately formed and useful words, expressing for the most part abstract qualities necessitated by the Christian religion and which hitherto had not existed in the Latin tongue, e. g., clericatus, impoenitentia, deitas, dualitas, glorificatio, corruptrix. At times, also, to supply new needs, he gives new meanings to old words: conditor, creator, redemptor, saviour of the world, predestinatio, communio, etc. Besides this enriching of the lexicon, St. Jerome rendered no less service to ecclesiastical Latin by his edition of the Vulgate. Whether he made his translation from the original text or adapted previous translations after correcting them he diminished, by that much, the authority of the many popular versions which could not fail to be prejudicial to the correctness of the language of the Church. By this very same act he popularized a number of Hebraisms and modes of speech -- vir desideriorum, filii iniquitatis, hortus voluptatis, inferioris a Daniele, inferior to Daniel -- which completed the shaping of the peculiar physiognomy of church Latin.

After St. Jerome's time ecclesiastical Latin may be said to be fully formed on the whole. If we trace the various steps of the process of producing it we find

  • that the ecclesiastical rites and institutions were first of all known by Greek names, and that the early Christian writers in the Latin language took those words consecrated by usage and embodied them in their works either in toto (e. g., angelus, apostolus, ecclesia, evangelium, clerus, episcopus, martyr) or else translated them (e. g., verbum, persona, testamentum, gentilis). It sometimes even happened that words bodily incorporated were afterwards replaced by translations (e.g., chrisma by donum, hypostasis by substantia or persona, exomologesis by confessio, synodus by concilium).
  • Latin words were created by derivations from existing Latin or Greek words by the addition of suffixes or prefixes, or by the combination of two or more words together (e. g., evangelizare, Incarnatio, consubstantialis, idololatria).
  • At times words having a secular or profane meaning are employed without any modification in a new sense (e. g.. fidelis, depositio, scriptura, sacramentum, resurgere, etc.). With respect to its elements ecclesiastical Latin consists of spoken Latin (sermo cotidianus) shot through with a quantity of Greek words, a few primitive popular phrases, some new and normal accretions to the language, and, lastly various new meanings arising mainly from development or analogy.

With the exception of some Hebraic or Hellenist expressions popularized through Bible translations, the grammatical peculiarities to be met with in ecclesiastical Latin are not to be laid to the charge of Christianity; they are the result of an evolution through which the common language passed, and are to be met with among non-Christian writers. In the main the religious upheaval which was colouring all t he beliefs and customs of the Western world did not unsettle the language as much as might have been expected. Christian writers preserved the literary Latin of their day as the basis of their language, and if they added to it certain neologisms it must not be forgotten that the classical writers, Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, etc., had before this to lament the poverty of Latin to express philosophical ideas, and had set the example of coining words. Why should later writers hesitate to say annunciatio, incarnatio, predestinatio, when Cicero had said monitio, debitio, prohibitio, and Livy, coercitio? Words like deitas, nativitas, trinitas are not more odd than autumnitas, olivitas, coined by Varro, and plebitas, which was used by the elder Cato.

Development in the Liturgy

Hardly had it been formed when church Latin had to undergo the shock of the invasion of the barbarians and the fall of the Empire of the West; it was a shock that gave the death-blow to literary Latin as well as to the Latin of everyday speech on which church Latin was waxing strong. Both underwent a series of changes that completely transformed them. Literary Latin became more and more debased; popular Latin evolved into the various Romance languages in the South, while in the North it gave way before the Germanic tongues. Church Latin alone lived, thanks to the religion of which it was the organ and with which its destinies were linked. True, it lost a portion of its sway; in popular preaching it gave way to the vernacular after the seventh century; but it could still claim the Liturgy and theology, and in these it served the purpose of a living language. In the liturgy ecclesiastical Latin shows its vitality by its fruitfulness. Africa is once more in the lead with St. Cyprian. Besides the singing of the Psalms and the readings in public from the Bible, which made up the main portion of the primitive liturgy and which we already know, it shows itself in set prayers in a love for rhythm, for well- balanced endings that were to remain for centuries during the Middle Ages the main characteristics of liturgical Latin. As the process of development went on, this love of harmony held sway over all prayers; they followed the rules of metre and prosody to begin with, but rhythmical cursus gained the upper-hand from the fourth to the seventh, and from the eleventh to the fifteenth, century.

As is well known, the cursus consists in a certain arrangement of words, accents, and sometimes whole phrases, whereby a pleasing modulated effect is produced. The prayer of the "Angelus" is the simplest example of this; it contains all three kinds of cursus that are to be met with in the prayers of the Missal and the Breviary:

  • the cursus planus, "nostris infunde";
  • the cursus tardus, "incarnationem cognovimus";
  • the cursus velox, "gloriam perducamur." So great was their influence over the language that the cursus passed from the prayers of the liturgy into some of the sermons of St. Leo and a few others, to papal Bulls from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and into many Latin letters written during the Middle Ages.

Besides the prayers, hymns make up the most vital thing in the Liturgy. From St. Hilary of Poitiers, to whom St. Jerome attributes the earliest, down to Leo XIII, who composed many hymns, the number of hymn writers is very great, and their output, as we learn from recent research, is beyond computing. Suffice it to say that these hymns originated in popular rhythms founded on accent; as a rule they were modelled on classical metres, but gradually metre gave way to beat or number of syllables and accent. (See HYMNODY AND HYMNOLOGY.) Since the Renaissance, rhythm has again given way to metre; and many old hymns were even retouched, under Urban VIII, to bring then into line with the rules of classical prosody.

Besides this liturgy which we may style official, and which was made up of words of the Mass, of the Breviary, or of the Ritual, we may recall the wealth of literature dealing with a variety of historical detail such as the "Pereginatio ad Loca sancta" formerly attributed to Silvia, many collections of rubrics, ordines, sacramentaries, ordinaries, or other books of a religious bearing, of which so many have been edited of late years in England either by private individuals or by the Surtees' Society and the Bradshaw Society. But the most we can do is to mention the brilliant liturgical efflorescence.

Development in Theology

Wider and more varied is the field theology opens up for ecclesiastical Latin; so wide that we must restrict ourselves to pointing out the creative resources which the Latin we speak of has given proof of since the beginning of the study of speculative theology, i. e., from the writings of the earliest Fathers down to our own day. More than elsewhere, it has here shown how capable it is of expressing the most delicate shades of theological thought, or the keenest hairsplitting of decadent Scholasticism. Need we mention what it has done in this field? The expression it has created, the meanings it has conveyed are only too well known. Whereas the major part of these expressions were legitimate, were necessary and successful -- transsubstantio, forma, materia, individuum, accidens, appetitus -- there are only too many that show a wordy and empty formalirm, a deplorable indifference for the sobriety of expression and for the purity of the Latin tongue -- aseitas, futuritio, beatificativum, terminatio, actualitas, haecceitas, etc. It was by such words as these that the language of theology exposed itself to the jibes of Erasmus and Rabelais, and brought discredit on a study that was deserving of more consideration. With the Renaissance, men's minds became more difficult to satisfy, readers of cultured taste could not tolerate a language so foreign to the genius of the classical Latinity that had been revived. It became necessary even for renowned theologians like Melchior Cano in the preface to his "Loci Theologici", to raise their voices against the demands of their readers as well as against the carelessness and obscurity of former theologians. It may be laid down that about this time classic correctness began to find a place in theological as well as in liturgical Latin.

Present Position

Henceforth correctness was to be the characteristic of ecclesiastical Latin. To the terminology consecrated for the expression of the faith of the Catholic Church it now adds as a rule that grammatical accuracy which the Renaissance gave back to us. But in our own age, thanks to a variety of causes, some of which arise from the evolution of educational programmes, the Latin of the Church has lost in quantity what it has gained in quality. Until recently, Latin had retained its place in the Liturgy, as it was seen to point out and watch over, in the very bosom of the Church, that unity of belief in all places and throughout all times which is her birthright. In current practice, throughout the liturgy and in the devotional hymns that accompany the ritual, the vernacular alone may be used. But in the devotional hymns that accompany the ritual the vernacular alone is used, and these hymns are gradually replacing the liturgical hymns. All the official documents of the Church, Encyclicals, Bulls, Briefs, institutions of bishops, replies from the Roman Congregations, acts of provincial councils, are written in Latin. Within recent years, however, solemn Apostolic letters addressed to one or other nation have been in their own tongue, and various diplomatic documents have been drawn up in French or in Italian. In the training of the clergy, the necessity of discussing modern systems whether of exegesis or philosophy, has led almost everywhere to the use of the national tongue. Manuals of dogmatic and moral theology may be written in Latin, in Italy, Spain, and France, but often, save in the Roman universities, the oral explanation thereof is given in the vernacular. In German and English speaking countries most of the manuals are in their own tongue, and nearly always the explanation is in the same languages.


« Fifth Lateran Council Church Latin Latin Church »
VIEWNAME is workSection