Saturday, October 8, 2011

Strategies for learning the Latin of the Office...

Continuing on from my previous post on saying the Office in Latin, today I want to suggest some learning strategies for those who wish to say the Office in Latin. 

1.  Immersion is best: say or sing as much as possible in Latin

You pick up patterns and seeing and hearing them over and over again, so its best to start from the beginning trying to say or sing however much of the Office you say in Latin.   As you along, you will understand more and more, gradually penetrating into the meaning of the text.

So in order to get started, take a look at a pronunciation guide (and there are many others around the net).  And listen to a few recordings of key prayers or Scripture selections - for example from this useful collection.

2.  Say or sing out the psalms out loud

It is much easier to memorize things if you say them and hear them said out loud. 

There are a couple of sites with useful audio files of the Vulgate psalms read in Latin, the ones I know about being:
Once you've got a sense of how they should sound though, hear them sung at pace (and join in), for example through the recordings of the Benedictine hours of Lauds and Vespers (and occasionally Compline) made available by the monks of Norcia.

Similarly, when you are trying to learn individual words, say them out loud.

3.  Start with the general sense, then dig down

The best way to learn the psalms is to start with a general sense of what they are about, then look at the verse by verse translation, then the phrase by phrase, then the word by word.  Start, in other words, at the general level, and gradually dig deeper.

To help on this, I'll generally provide a short summary of what each psalm is about, then some general introductory material on it, and then more detailed notes.

4.  Repetition is crucial

I've seen some material on learning languages that suggests you need to see a word in a context that gives it a meaning (ie accompanied by a definition or other cue) around 72 times in order to lodge it permanently in the memory.

Some suggested tactics to help achieve that:
  • try to learn the psalm verses, together with a sense of what they mean, by heart - at least so you can keep it in mind for a day, repeating it over to yourself;
  • write it out verse by verse, phrase by phrase, or word by word on flashcards, one side Latin the other English;
  • keep referring the verse or phrase back to the whole, and back to the summary of what the psalm is about;
  • go back and refresh your memory on the verse the next day and at regular intervals until you are sure it is firmly lodged in your brain!
5.  Get an overview of how Latin grammar works

You don't need to start by learning Latin properly. 

The notes I plan to provide will give you a phrase by phrase literal translation which you can use to compare to the official translations and pick it up that way.

But you will pick up the language a lot faster if you have a general sense of how Latin works.  The key here is to know that while in English word order does a lot of the work of conveying different meanings, in Latin word order is mostly about emphasis: what changes the meaning is the endings of the words.

A very useful, basic introduction to Ecclesiastical Latin is the excellent Simplicissimus course, targeted specifically at the Latin of the Office and Mass.  Read through it first, and then go and back and work through it more carefully at your leisure! 

If you have a good grasp of traditional grammar, you might find one of the online parsing tools available to help work your way through the text.

Another excellent tool to decipher individual words is the Perseus Latin Word Tool.


I've put up a number of link to Latin resources and psalm commentaries in the right sidebar, so do take a look at them.  Study of the commentaries by the Fathers and Theologians is particularly important, in my view, in order to gain a proper understanding the text of the psalms.

I want to acknowledge though that my own notes also draw heavily on Dom Matthew Britt's Dictionary of the Psalter which can be downloaded for free - it is rather weighted towards the Masoretic Text version of the psalter, but is still a very comprehensive and helpful resource. 

Another older commentary I've used extensively is the two volume commentary by Msgr Patrick Boylan

Other more recent useful aids include David Ladouceur's The Latin Psalter, Introduction, Selected Text and Commentary (only does a few psalms, and similarly biased against the validity of the Septuagint text, but useful grammar notes) and Hugh Ballantyne's the Psalms and Canticles of the Divine Office Latin Text Edited with Vocabulary and Notes (but you have to start at Psalm 1 and work through in order, learning the vocab off by heart, as he doesn't include repetitions or a complete alphabetical listing of words). 

More soon...


  1. I must praise and thank you for this!

    If I may refer to my own experience, I learnt the psalms and prayed them in the Grail version used in the modern English edition of the Divine Office, before, in the last few years, shifting to praying them in the Vulgate Latin of the Breviary.

    What you say is so true - one learns through repetition. I would counsel learning the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary and suchlike most well-known prayers in Latin first, alongside one's favourite psalm(s), and then to boldly pray them daily.

    I must say, I largely if not wholly say my prayers in Latin now.

  2. Well, we'll see how it goes!

    But I agree with you on starting with the Our Father etc - the Alta vista link gives you that.

    And Psalm 3, which the Holy Father starts his exegesis series on, is a pretty good one to start with, as said daily in the Benedictine Office and worth saying daily even if you use a different Office!