Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







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19 sep 2014

 Prose prompts for Ecclesiastical Latin stress placement



Ecclesiastical Latin

No matter which Latin pronunciation approach one follows, Classical or Ecclesiastical, a problem confronts those who learn Latin largely from books (which is most of us) and who work almost entirely with Latin prose  (as opposed to poetry, which again, is most of us), namely, knowing where to place the stress in multisyllabic Latin words. The problem is simple; the solution is not.


The problem

of stress in

Latin prose texts

The problem of Latin prose stress arises thus:

  • the overwhelming majority of Latin prose texts (unlike those of, say, Greek) do not contain any diacritical markers;

  • most of the (few) diacriticals that do appear in Latin materials usually indicate poetical values (or, rarely, grammatical function), but Latin poetical values often differ from prose values and grammatical function has almost nothing to do with stress placement; and,

  • the so-called simple rules for determining stress in Latin prose assume an extensive knowledge of rules derived from Latin poetry.

Let me repeat, the problem of correctly placing stress in Latin prose has nothing to do with which Latin pronunciation system one uses for, with exceptions too few to note, the stress in Latin prose is identical in both Classical and Ecclesiastical pronunciation systems.


For example, the word "cælum" (sky, heaven), whether it is pronounced "kī-lŭm" by the Classicists or "chā-lŭm" by the Italians, is always stressed "-lum" and never "cæ-lum". But how does one know where to place the stress in a Latin prose word if one is not a fluent speaker of Latin or well-trained in Latin poetry and if no stress indicators are provided in the text itself? There are only two ways to find out.


Listen to

good Latin

One could, of course, simply listen to good Latin prose speakers (in person or by recording) and imitate them. Among modern giants of Ecclesiastical Latin two Carmelite priests, Suitbertus Siedl and Reginald Foster, have recorded extensive passages of Latin prose which amply reward careful listening. Likewise those studying Classical Latin might listen to excellent offerings from, say, Hans-Friedrich Mueller. But even though listening is the most natural way to learn proper Latin prose stress there is a drawback to this approach: it takes considerable time to attune one's ears to the subtleties of Latin sound.


For example, one might go for months, maybe even for years, before noticing that "sæcula" is stressed on its first syllable while "sæculorum" is stressed on its third, especially if one's exposure to Latin "prose" is largely to Latin prose as chanted (even assuming it is chanted well, which often it is not). Worse, one who did notice the difference in stress might misinterpret the reason behind it and incorrectly apply that 'rule' to some other words. Thus, while I strongly recommend listening to good live or recorded speakers of Latin prose—especially early in one's Latin learning process (yet another reason to start younger children on Latin who have more time on their hands)—adult learners are, I think, better advised to learn a relatively short list of stress rules that will cover most situations and then to learn the exceptions to those rules over time, all the while listening, of course, as opportunities arise, to good Latin speakers.


Simple stress rules and diacritical markers








* Some Hebrew words, transliterated into Latin, might retain their ultimate syllable stress, eg, Israël.

Now, about those stress rules.


One-syllable words in Latin prose have, of course, only one syllable to receive the sound and two-syllable Latin prose words are always stressed on their first syllable. So far so good.


But Latin prose words of three or more syllables present problems for which a boatload of supposedly-simple-but-actually-quite-complex-stress-assignment-rules (which rules, by the way, often seem more like descriptions of stress rather than rules for its determination) are impractical. Instead, here is what I suggest.


First, know that the stress of a Latin prose word never falls on the last (the ultimate) syllable. Latin prose stress always falls on either the second-to-last (the penultimate) or on the third-to-last (the antepenultimate) syllable. Put another way, for Latin prose words of three or more syllables, there are only two stress placement options, namely, either the antepenultimate or the penultimate syllable. Stress never appears earlier or later in Latin prose words.*


Second, notice that (for many reasons), the stress in polysyllabic Latin prose words tends to fall on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable. This penultimate stress preference is always true of two-syllable words, as noted above, but it is often true for Latin words of three or more syllables. Not always, of course, but often enough that, for readers of Latin prose who know nothing of the rules for poetry, this presuming of a penultimate stress is convenient, especially because a penultimate presumption means that only those Latin words whose stress occurs in the antepenultimate syllable would need to be marked. The simple convention of marking only those Latin words whose prose stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable is what I recommend.


I also suggest that stress prompts be placed under the syllable (specially, the vowels therein), instead of above the vowel, so as to indicate unambiguously that what is being marked is a prose, not a poetry, value. Besides, accent markers above the vowel "i" are notoriously hard to see, and are cumbersome when placed above capital letters. Both problems are eliminated by placing prose prompts underneath the appropriate vowel.


An example












The Gospel of Mark

with prose prompts.

Let's look at an example. The first half of the Hail Mary in Latin is usually printed thus:


Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.


Now, of these sixteen words in this passage, three (tu, in, and et) are monosyllabic and have no stress in Latin prose. Seven words (Ave, plena, tecum, fructus, ventris, tui, and Jesus) are disyllabic and are stressed, therefore, on their first syllable. But six words (Maria, gratia, Dominus, Benedicta, mulieribus, and benedictus) contain three or more syllables. For those who can't listen to well-trained speakers of Latin prose and absorb its sounds naturally, and who don't know the rules of Latin poetry valuation and/or how to apply those rules to Latin prose, these six words present a stress problem.


The solution I suggest is to place prose prompts on those words, but only those words, whose stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable, as follows:


Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.


From this presentation, it is instantly clear that three words (gratia, Dominus, and mulieribus) are stressed on their antepenultimates and that all other polysyllabic words (Maria, Benedicta, and benedictus) are stressed on their penultimate.  There seems to be no simpler way to convey so much tonal information with so little diacritical clutter. I hope teachers and editors consider adopting it.


In the meantime

While awaiting the happy day when simplified diacriticals are common in Latin prose texts, a reader, confronted with prose texts but being unsure of where to place the stress in polysyllabic words, might keep in mind the following clues that require no knowledge of poetical values.


Endings that always carry their own stress (so the stress is always penultimate) include:

  • -arum, -orum (genitive plurals of the first and second declensions), so: familiarum, gloriarum, dominorum, librorum.

  • -atim (adverb), so: generatim, nominatim.

  • -erunt (third person plural, perfect indicative), so: laudaverunt, ceperunt.

Endings that never carry their own stress (so the stress is always antepenultimate) include:

  • -ibus (dative/ablative plurals of the third and fourth declensions), so: mulieribus, principibus.

  • -iis (dative/ablative plurals of first and second declensions), so: gloriis, principiis, casiis.

  • -io (some nominative singular third declension), so: laudatio, petitio.

  • -ium =

  • -mini (second person plural passive), so: pænitemini, laudabamini.

  • -itas = so, humanitas, veritas. But: Levitas

  • -iter (positive adverb), so: alacriter, feliciter, laudabiliter, aliter.

  • -itur =

  • -tiæ (genitive/dative singular and nominative plural, first declension), so: vigilantiæ, propriæ.

  • -uum (= so: perpetuum