‘Tis the Season – to Sing in Latin!

Christmas

Christmas time is the most wonderful time of the year, if you’re just starting out as a Latin learner. At what other time are you likely to walk into Poundland and hear Latin coming out of the speakers? At what other time can you send friends a card with Latin on the front, without being pretentious? Rejoice, Latinists, because at Christmas time, for a short while, we become mainstream!

Christmas carols are a wonderful way of appreciating Latin. Take, for instance, the first verse of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’:

O Come All Ye Faithful

Joyful and triumphant,

O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

Come and behold Him,

Born the King of Angels;

O come, let us adore Him,

O come, let us adore Him,

O come, let us adore Him,

Christ the Lord.

 

If you take a proper look at it, I think you’ll agree that it’s an awkward piece of writing. There’s a painful over-use of ‘ye’, lots of exclamatory Os; and as the verses go on, the English becomes more and more artificial, to the point of being difficult to sing. Yet it’s a hugely popular carol: the tune and the arrangement make up for the stilted syntax.

Compare the original Latin version:

Adeste fideles,

laeti triumphantes;

venite, venite in Bethlehem;

natum videte

regem angelorum.

venite, adoremus,

venite, adoremus,

venite, adoremus Dominum.

It has style and simplicity. Polysyllabic words (like the four-syllabled triumphantes and angelorum) slot neatly into the tune, and as a consequence we see single words instead of phrases: Dominum for Christ the Lord, venite for O come ye. That’s not to say that the English translator did a bad job: on the contrary, finding a neat three-syllable English translation for the plural imperative venite must have been quite a challenge, and the translator succeeded admirably! The problem is simply that English doesn’t have the elegant economy that we see in Latin.

Incidentally, there’s some controversy about who wrote the lyrics to this carol, in its original Latin version. My favourite story is that King John IV of Portugal, the ‘Musician King’, also known as John the Fortunate, wrote it. King John was a composer, and a collector of music: his music library was perhaps the greatest in the world, until it was destroyed in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. One version of the story says that Fortunate John wrote this hymn for his daughter, Catherine of Braganza, to take to England with her when she married King Charles II in 1662. Catherine is also credited with bringing tea to Britain – so thank you, Queen Catherine!

If, however, we choose to dismiss Fortunate John and his tea-drinking daughter, we’re left with the likelihood that John Francis Wade wrote Adeste Fideles in the 18th century. But even here there’s a lurking royal connection. A theory has been proposed that the lyrics were actually meant as a Jacobite code, and that regem Angelorum (the king of angels) is really a pun on regem Anglorum (the king of the English): in other words, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But whether it was written by the Musician King or for the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie, it’s a great piece of Latin writing, and we all know it. Many hymns originally written in Latin have been entirely replaced in the public consciousness by their English translations, but Adeste Fideles won’t be budged: I was listening to it in a garden centre just last week. So this Christmas, watch Carols from Kings, and listen closely to the Latin. Yes, the pronunciation has been mangled a bit over the centuries, but the style and simplicity of the Latin is still striking.

Then go off and sing it. A lot. Loudly. Possibly while wearing tinsel on your head. After all, Christmas is a time for annoying your loved ones: and as a classicist, you’re now entitled to annoy them in Latin!

 

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas!

 

 

Cora Beth Knowles


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