Latin Pronunciation
  • Someone firmly proposes that we ought to sing eléison with three syllables, so that the second syllable is a diphthong . However we sing it in the only way I've ever thought right, as four syllables. With exactly the same vowels as, for example, mei or Dei.

    Well so I looked in the Liber Usualis, for example, on a page where I have not looked for many a year, and found my habitual Latin pronunciation, also that of the schola, described exactly. At least so it seemed to me, and good. Of course I know that there is no unique correct way to pronounce Latin and even my great-grandfather certainly pronounced it differently, in the old English way. But we at Mass want to sing using the “usual” modern Church Latin pronunciation.

    So does that include or exclude singing Ky-ri-e e-le-i-son? How about e-lei-son? What do you do, and why?
  • davido
    Posts: 782
    Depends on the setting. If there is a note for “i” then it’s a four syllable word. If no extra note, then it’s a diphthong.
  • Have a look at some of the restituted chants of the Kyriale, for example by Gregor und Taube (Anton Stingl): they all have the three syllable "e-lei-son" throughout.
  • I've been told in one schola to sing it ky-ri-e e-le-ei-son. So that the e and i are not said as individual sounds but more like an eh followed by an ehy. Has anyone else heard of this?
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  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,174
    The correct pronunciation is five syllables: Ky-ri-e-ley-son.
  • I see it both ways all the time. Completely depends on the composer. I don't believe either is "wrong" in a musical context. I believe it's a diphthong when spoken.

    This reminds me of the time I was accompanying a lutheran choir who sang in latin all of once a year and this woman insisted to the choir that it is "gloria in EGG-SHELL-seees Deo." Got it? EGG. SHELL. (To be fair, not the worst way of pronouncing it, but man was she adamant and the choir just had to go with it.) lol.
    Thanked by 1MatthewRoth
  • The "eggshell" idea might be a useful way to explain the imploded K, but it's not literally the desired end result. The caricaturing of Latin and apparent necessity to shoehorn every single phoneme into an American English box is all too prevalent in North America.
    Thanked by 1MNadalin
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,832
    The correct pronunciation is always ... whatever the current director says it is.
  • Elmar
    Posts: 491
    The only thing I know for sure that scholars disagree even on what the criteria of a 'correct' pronunciation should be, so there just cannot be a final answer.
    (Is Ky-ri-e e-le-i-son 'more correct' than Ky-rie-lei-son?)
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,083
    I don't think this bit of Greek pronunciation can be settled as "correct" any more than the pronunciation of Latin (Italian style vs. German style) can be settled.
  • PaxTecum
    Posts: 299
    Chonak, I came here to say just that! However, I prefer something similar to the 5 syllable pronunciation suggested by Salieri.
  • Not to nitpick, but you’re actually trying to pronounce Greek, not Latin.
  • When appearing as a response in a litany we hear (rightly) ky-ri-e- e-le-i-son. This, regardless of most contexts seems to me to be reasonable and correct. Most Gregorian settings of kyrie sing ky---ri-- eh - - - - -- (eh) ------ | eh - - - ley- i - son
    (e.g. Cum jubilo)

    I once was good friends with a German (Klaus Kratzenstein, who could improvise a trio sonata in Baroque style) who insisted that we pronounce kyrie the German way, kuh-re-eh. I vote for the four syllable version and avoid the diphthong.

    The Lutherans have a class of hymns known as 'leisen', which feature 'eleison' as a refrain at the end of every stanza - except when it is shortened to 'kyrieleis'. One of two seems authoritative - exchelsis or exshelsis. The latter is less euphonious and is apt to suggest egg shells.
    Thanked by 2Elmar MatthewRoth
  • If it helps, we have sisters in a monastery of Greek Rite, and they tell is it should be four syllables and even that the E in KYRIE to ElEISON should be distinct because of the accent... at least that was what they told us, they are from greece so I assume thats pretty trust worthy...
  • In most cases I agree with @monasteryliturgist, especially in chants. I see more of the diphthong usage when its applied in sacred polyphony, and even then its an mixture of the two in some arrangements.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,832
    I kinda think the Kyrie in the Roman Rite Mass is pronounced the way Queen Elizabeth II deliberately pronounces French (to gall the Gauls; Romans could adopt a similar attitude to the Greeks); the Y is not really pronounced like Greek (and if it were, it would likely impair pitch in the mouths of amateur singers).
  • Well, my original question was supposed to be specifically about the so-called ecclesiastical pronunciation, since I don't really want to just have my own opinion when the question arises.

    Of course the kyrieleyson itself is a bit of a stumbling block and I might have guessed I'd get a dozen different answers. However at this point I'm certain that the "official ecclesiastical pronunciation" is four syllables, even though the above suggestions and opinions to the contrary are well worthy.

    One point though: Kyrie and eleison (and on Good Friday, hagios theos athanatos ischyros) are Greek words borrowed into the Latin liturgy: like Alleliluia and Amen are ditto from Hebrew or Aramaic. We don't try to pronounce the latter in those languages, but in Latin: and the former, Greek, the same, I think.
  • We learned 'Gloria in egg-shells' in kindergarten for the Christmas concert. I never forgot.
  • jcr
    Posts: 118
    Way back in the fifties it was a popular intermediary rehearsal procedure for some choral directors to teach "egg-shell-sees" to choirs. If one didn't know what the goal of the pronunciation was (to learn to avoid ekk sell- etc.), then we heard some very odd Latin, indeed. The next step was, of course correct Latin.
  • dad29
    Posts: 2,204
    jcr has it: it's a choral-unification technique, much like imagining the letter "H" following every long vowel in Latin, to avoid dipthongualization.
  • dipthongualization. love it!
  • [OFF TOPIC: I thought "hypochondriocracy" was the best word I had run into recently. Now I can add dipthongualization. I use "unconfusification" sometimes with students.]


    Is the reason "h" in mihi and nihil being pronounced as a "k" that this is the simplest way to approximate an aspirate h?
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  • Who on earth sings "miki"? I've never heard of such a thing.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,083
    We do. Some medieval manuscripts even spell it "michi".
    Thanked by 1tomjaw
  • Learn something new every day.
  • We sing miki, too.
  • [k] would be the Italianate pronunciation of ch, which is also why the Germans pronounce michi with [ç].
  • Is the reason "h" in mihi and nihil being pronounced as a "k" that this is the simplest way to approximate an aspirate h?

    I think it has to do with audibility and having a distinct beginning to the syllable.
  • Jeffrey,

    Do I understand correctly that you think I've analyzed the situation correctly? No one can hear a Roman h, so we aspirate it?