A carol sing is not always a good idea among word fanatics. Although they provide many wonderful archaic usages to savour, things can get a bit contentious at times. And so I’m frankly not sure what I was doing in late November singing quartets with Daryl, Margot, and Jess.
Actually, I do know. We were rehearsing. Of course you have to rehearse before Advent in order to be ready to sing when people want you to sing. And we were doing “Angels We Have Heard on High” – or was it “Ding Dong Merrily on High”? – when we came up against that perennial choir catch: excelsis.
There were four of us. On the first pass, there were four different pronunciations.
“People,” Margot said, lowering her music, “don’t you know Latin? Never mind how it’s been bastardized over the past couple of millennia. C is pronounced [k]. ‘Eks-kel-cease.'”
“We’re not singing classical Latin,” I said. “We’re singing ecclesiastical Latin. Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation changed some in the centuries between the one and the other. Note how we’re not pronouncing the English words in fifteenth-century style.”
“That’s right,” Daryl said. “The c before i and e became an alveopalatal fricative. So it’s ‘ex-chell-cease.'”
Jess and I both winced. (So did Margot, but she does it so often you hardly need to say so.) “That’s not quite right, either,” Jess said. “While c became ‘ch’ before the front vowels, sc became ‘sh.’ No need for a transition through ‘s-ch’ either. You can also see this transformation in, for instance, Norwegian and Swedish: ski is actually said with a fricative, similar to our ‘she.’ And in ecclesiastical Latin, xc before i or e is ‘ksh.’ So it’s ‘ek-shell-cease.’ Just sing it all like Italian.”
“Or you can go with the English tradition,” I added. “I admit I’m not the world’s hugest fan at all times of what happened to Latin when it got run through the Great Vowel Shift and all that along with English – ‘nil nice eye bone ’em’ for nil nisi bonum and all that – but when you look at these songs, they’re really English songs with the Latin borrowed in. So you can sing ‘ek-sell-cease’ just as the guys who wrote the words most likely had in mind.”
“Sounds like ‘In Excel spreadsheets’!” Margot snorted. “Or ‘in eggshell sheets.’ Daryl’s version sounds like a cash register or a pachinko machine.”
Jess smirked slightly. “And you find your anachronistic stop-laden classical version somehow more euphonious?”
“Excel is related, etymologically,” I pointed out. “Latin ex-cellere, ‘rise above others,’ with the cel related to celsus, ‘lofty.'” Margot was undoubtedly gratified that I said the Latin the classical way. “Excelsus is ‘high,’ so the English just repeats the Latin anyway: ‘on high,’ ‘in the highest.’ Actually, the word used could as easily have been altissimis – Saint Jerome preferred that version.”
“And then we wouldn’t be having this argument,” Daryl said.
“We shouldn’t anyway,” Jess said. “How can anyone hear in excelsis without thinking of Christmas? And how can anyone be –”
Margot jumped in: “– anything but stressed out by the pre-Christmas season? Yeah.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m going to throw my vote in with Jess, so that gives us a plurality, which is enough to win. It’s the shell, icky or otherwise. Let’s try it again.”
We ran through the song again, with Margot giving the grimace we all expected from her at the appropriate point, but going with the decision. As we were singing, Elisa wandered by and stopped to listen.
“How’d we sound?” Jess asked her when we were done.
“Excellent!” Elisa declared. “On key, gives me chills… don’t cease!”