There are several ways to pronounce Latin. Ecclesiastical Latin is the one used when singing sacred music. I've found several guides for how to pronounce ecclesiastical Latin, but none have described how to pronounce "ps" when it occurs at the beginning of a word like psalite. Is the P silent or not? The discussion threads I've found lean strongly toward a silent P, but without any definitive references.

Also, does it make a difference if it is not phrase-initial, such as in bene psalite?

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    Sorry in advance: "ps" : I love you. – Carl Witthoft Aug 30 '16 at 11:13

No definitive reference here, but my madrigal group is singing Praetorius' "Psallite, unigenito" this season, and our director made us a diction guide that gives it as a silent p (I could ask him for a source). Slight wrinkle is that, it being Praetorius, it's also in Germanicised Latin, which I didn't even realize existed until last week. That apparently changes a few things: e.g. a hard 'g' in unigenito, and a 'ts' sound instead of 'ch' for the 'c' in 'jacenti'.

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  • From what you describe I conclude, that you use the term Germanicised Latin for a non-Italian pronounciation. – guidot Aug 30 '16 at 9:39
  • @guidot I think instead Germanicised is in contrast to Anglicised, though the English is a lot closer to the Italian than it is to the German. – OrangeDog Aug 30 '16 at 10:37
  • I would add that in my scholas, we've always sung an initial ps slightly differently to an initial s. Start like you're about to voice a p but don't actually produce the consonant until after the lips have opened. Tongue position is almost like a Germanic ts. – OrangeDog Aug 30 '16 at 10:41

If I trust my Latin dictionary, psallo means playing on the zither and derives directly from Greek ψάλλω. The letter ψ also remains in numerous words of Greek origin like psychology. There is little reason to assume, that the p was ever silent in Roman empire or Greece.

Wikipedia states, that church Latin moved its pronounciation towards Italian (most noticable in combinations like ce, ci, where the c is currently assumed to have been pronounced as k by native Romans, and ge, gi). Italian with its simple pronounciation has practically no silent letters (aside from "h" in combinations like ghe). Psicologia (Italian for psychology) is pronounced with ps.

This leaves two possible (somewhat questionable) reasons:

  • English pronounciation drops the p at the start of Greek words (on the other hand English has not the best track record of preserving original pronounciation). See related English language forum answer.
  • It is awkward to sing

For sure it makes no difference, whether ps is at the beginning of a word (or sentence) or somewhere in the middle.

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    I dunno about that last sentence: "ghost" vs. "laugh" – Carl Witthoft Aug 30 '16 at 11:14
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    @CarlWitthoft, yeah, but that is English orthography on English word roots (which is a strange topic in its own right). Guidot is right: this is a Greek loan word in a Latin context, and Ψ is a single consonant in Greek. – user16935 Aug 30 '16 at 13:11
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    @Patrx2 no argument there... but I bet some enterprising person could find similar foulups in derived Latin :-) – Carl Witthoft Aug 30 '16 at 13:18
  • @CarlWitthoft, I ain't taking you up on that bet! My mama didn't raise no fool. ;^) – user16935 Aug 30 '16 at 13:42
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    In regard to the awkwardness of pronouncing the P, I would argue that for an English speaker psalite alone is awkward, but bene psalite, with the "ps" following a vowel, is not. Situations like that actually can affect pronunciation. For example, in English words containing "ps" from Greek psi, the P is silent only if it's at the beginning of a word: psychology vs. autopsy. English phonotactics allow /ps/ between two vowels, but not at the beginning of a word. That's why I wondered if it might matter whether the word beginning with "ps" is at the beginning of a phrase. – Sam Kauffman Aug 30 '16 at 18:33

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