Latin is an eminently beautiful language because of its intrinsic purity.
I grew up with Latin not because I was born and raised Catholic, but rather because I was a part of a wonderful, world-class children’s choir that honoured the musical traditions of history. There is certainly an irony in the reality that a fundamentally secular choir put forward the value of the Catholic spiritual legacy in song and the excellent execution of that through the pure voices of children, while the Masses in which I first learned about my faith didn’t even refer to–perhaps not even once until much later in my teens–this vast storehouse of beauty.
A Listening Case Study on Latin’s Beauty and Purity
There is more to be said on that another time; it is a strange thing that [our beautiful Catholic musical heritage] has been preserved by simply secular musicians of excellence with a cultivated taste for beauty rather than the many iterations of 20th and 21st century Catholicism. But for now, I simply want to focus on the inherent beauty of the language, shining a light on what I have long understood intuitively from my time as a child, but which, I imagine, most people have rarely had a chance to consider.
Take, for example, the perennial choral melody of Aquinas’s Panis Angelicus:
What Is It that Makes the Latin Language So Pure & Beautiful?
With minor exceptions, Latin pronunciation is as straightforward as is possible. There are precisely five key vowels and predictable consonant sounds that once learned can be replicated across the near entirety of the language. English, for example, is not like this at all; we are rife with different rules and applications of those rules, due to our strange but endearing development as a language through a complicated process of mixing over the centuries. I am not a linguist or etymologist, so will stop there, but suffice it to say that Latin stands out among the languages as having a simplicity and beauty that easily translates into sung beauty.
This simplicity is also a reason why I encourage Catholics to not be intimidated by the language; while learning it is challenging, as is the difficulty of many languages, pronouncing it and thus being able to engage meaningfully in the prayers of the Church and our Catholic melodies is readily available.
The language itself, spoken—if spoken well with a mind engaged with the purity of the vowels—is already soothing. It’s easy to feel the predictable sense of rhythm within the sounds, aided, of course, by the reality of cases (endings of words that match to denote the specific role of a particular word in a sentence and how the various words relate).
The Latin Language Translates to Beauty and Purity in Song
When sung, the purity of the vowels and simplicity of the consonants lend singers, especially in a well-tuned choral setting, a capacity for the satisfying “ring” we can hear reverberating through a cathedral dome. This is certainly possible in other languages, but Latin has a certain par excellence in this regard because it lends itself most easily to that effect of resonance and ringing.
Is that a knockout argument for why Latin has traditionally been one of the key languages of the Church? Probably not. There are many other reasons, far beyond the scope of this little article about Latin sounds for Catholic music. But it’s a good starting point for consideration that, in the providence of God’s overarching, mysterious sovereignty and [His absolute knowing of beauty’s value for the souls He created], He saw fit to allow such a pure language to develop in precisely the right moment for the birth of the Church.