Why Not Sing in American Latin?

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to almost one hundred choirs over the course of this year as a clinician, judge, conductor, and audience member. After the English language, the next language most frequently sung is Latin. Much fuss is made about how to actually pronounce Latin. The current trend of attempting to deliver a historically informed performance (as the composer would have heard and envisioned it) has found its way into the pronunciation discussion. Would Bach have heard a different dialect of church Latin than Charpentier? Latin did diverge into regional pronunciations influenced by the natural consonant and vowel sounds of the vernacular language in that area. This has been confirmed by research. This can be heard in contemporary recordings of European choirs. Yet, many of these same choirs frequently sing the Latin dialect of their home country, even if they are performing the work of a composer from somewhere else. The national/regional Latin dialect still wins out from time to time.

This brings us to Latin in American choral music. Inevitably, at every festival, a judge or clinician will approach a choir and chide (sometimes castigate) them regarding their Latin pronunciation. In the majority of cases the Latin is part of a contemporary choral work set by an American composer, followed by ars perfecta motets from Italy or Spain. The number one word that is pointed out is always, always “in”, which Americans pronounce [In] and every judge always wants to be pronounced [in]. After that there are several sounds that get brought to attention: is “excelsis” pronounced “eggshell-sees” or “eks-chell-sees” or “ek-sell-sees”? American choirs tend to pronounce this word the first way most frequently, which makes sense considering how those letters would be pronounced in American English. The same can be said of the more percussive consonance of t, c, and ch sounds, mixing of bright and dark vowels and modifying them as if they were in an American English word, etc.

I submit for your consideration: it’s time for the American choral academy to acknowledge that the United States has its own Latin dialect. Cultivated over generations of sacred and academic practice, it is an assimilation of the colors and quirks of American English. We are, after all, not Europeans, yet we exert enormous energy trying to be European in this regard. What then, is the “right” way to sing a Latin text set by a 21st century American composer? Must every American composer place a note in the music indicating the desired European dialect with which they envision their work to be pronounced? That seems like an unnecessary expectation to place on composers and choirs alike. Embracing an American Latin dialect would release conductors from the monotony and wasted rehearsal time of continually correcting ingrained pronunciations, allow composers writing for American audiences a chance to imagine sound colors more familiar to their singers, and get rid of the anxiety of taking a choir to festival and being judged uneducated or wrong because one didn’t choose the appropriate European dialect. Let’s claim American Latin as our own unique contribution to the choral vernacular. If everyone else can do it, so can we.

glɔriə ɪn ˈɛgˌʃɛl siz deɪ oʊ. ‘mɛrɪkə.