How do YOU Pronounce “In Excelsis Deo”?

Imagine this: you’re standing around a warm fireplace on Christmas Eve, bundled up in a woolen sweater, with some after-Christmas-feast eggnog in your mittened paws. Aunt Ruth kindly points out that everyone in the extended family would LOVE to sing some Christmas Carols, so some brave soul rallies the troops from all corners of the house, and strikes up the immortal Christmas anthem: “Angels We Have Heard on High”.

As the family screeches through the extended “Glooooooooooo-ooo-ooo-ria!” section, and rounds the bends towards the “In Excelsis Deo“, the carol dissembles into meaninglessness. Aunt Ruth screeches “In Egg-Shell-Sheesh Deo!”, Cousin Sam warbles “An Ex-Celtic Duo!”, while Uncle Bud bellows “I’ll Egg Chelsea’s Daewoo!”

“In Excelsis Deo” – I have heard all kinds of pronounciations for this Christmas-time staple. And every year, thousands of families across America launch into spirited debates about the pronounciation of this Latin phrase.

Okay…maybe that’s just my family.

Be that as it may, I was tired of getting into ceaseless debates with relatives about the matter during the Christmas Holiday Season. So I decided I needed to turn to an authority on this matter –

the internet.

I started to do some research. Here are some different opinions:

“There is a third pronunciation – ‘ExSHELsis’ that is supposedly more correct.”

“There is a ‘common Latin’ vs. a ‘classical Latin’. While nobody knows how classical Latin was really pronounced, centuries of verbal tradition in the Catholic church and in church music favors the ‘ch’ or the ‘sh’ over the ‘soft c’ version of ‘excel’.”

“I am not interested in Catholic tradition, or how near 2000 years of church choirs might have corrupted the pronunciation. All it would take is one person with a speech impediment, whose identity is lost in antiquity, to permanently corrupt pronunciation of a language only seldom used.”

Well! It looks like nobody really knows how to pronounce it. But I wasn’t ready to give up, so I headed for Phonetica Latin, the apparent self-proclaimed authority on how to pronounce Latin.

And I was not to be disappointed.

Actually, I was to be disappointed. Because it turns out that they have all kinds of different ways to do it.

Fortunately, all was not lost. They did link to this VERY ANNOYING clip of the Vienna Boys Choir singing the song, and at least THEY agree with MY pronounciation.

Vindication at last!

Listen to my take on this song at my myspace page

-micah redding

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37 thoughts on “How do YOU Pronounce “In Excelsis Deo”?

  1. Thank you so much for doing this research. This chorus has frustrated me EVERY Christmas. My choir teacher when I was a kid taught me exCHelsis, so that’s how I always pronounced it. But almost everyone I knew uses ‘cel”. I guess it is still up in the air, but it’s good to have some idea of the arguments for all pronounciations. Thanks,

  2. Using what I “learned” in 2 years of latin in HS, I pronounce it “cel”. In our church they sing it “chelseez”. It drives me crazy!

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  4. A comment from Italy: the “correct” (Ciceronian) pronunciation is… how can I write it… exchelsees, with che pronounced like… Ernesto Guevara



  7. I took Latin in high school, and was taught that in Latin “c” is pronounced “k”. Which would make it “in ex kelsis deo”.

  8. Simple explanation: there is a slight difference between the Old ‘Churtch’ Latin and the more modern form of Latin. Just consider British and American English.

  9. As commonly pronounced, it is in fact pronounced “ex cell sis.” Trust me, your choir director probably will not see it this way, as somthing in choir directors (no offense Greys) always make them pronounce these sort of things wrong. Why, I am unsure of that, but it is true. So to answer this question, it is pronounced “ex cell sis.”

    -Hope that helped, R. E. Anderson

  10. Anyone in a choir knows it is pronounced eg-shell-sees day-o.

    That is the ecclesiastical pronunciation which is always preferred in music. Latin teachers are sometimes surprisingly uninformed about pronunciation.

  11. It is true that the Latin we sing is not classical Latin, it is ecclesiastical Latin, and is no more correctly pronounced in the classical style than English is correctly pronounced according to the rules of six centuries ago, so “ex kell cease” is not right. But in ecclesiastical Latin, sc is pronounced “sh” and xc is pronounced “ksh.” The “ex chell cease” version is a failure to realize this phonological rule: that while the “k” of classical palatalized to a “ch” in the vulgate, the “sk” became a “sh” (as it also has done in some Scandinavian languages — in Norwegian, ski is, roughly, “shee”). Meanwhile, the English developed over time their own pronunciation of Latin (as did people in Germany, France, etc.), and so “ek sell cease” became a standard. But if we want to sing it in the ecclesiastical standard, the easy rule is to pronounce it exactly as one would Italian. And “s” plus “ch” is always “sh” in Italian.

  12. As a Voice Performance major, I was taught in Italian Diction that c followed by e or i is pronounced ch. C followed by a,o, or u is pronounced as a k. Italian and Latin pronunciation are similar,except the vowel sounds in Latin are referred to as open (e=eh, rather than closed e=long A).

    I, too, have been told by choir directors to pronounce excelsis as eggshellsis – and I have also told choirs this. Since pronunciation for singing is not always the way we say words, I will stick to this.

    I wonder if the reason we choir directors use sh is because, as mentioned in previous comments, this prevents too many ch ch ch sounds? The egg (voiced g) flows easily into the shell, thus giving a better flow in singing.

  13. Dorothy Brown: In standard Italian, sc followed by i or e is always “sh”, never “s-ch.” If you happen to go to Italy or talk with Italian speakers (as opposed to people not fluent in Italian who have “learned” some “rules”), you will find very quickly that this is the case. This is true in liturgical Latin, too. It’s not simply a consideration for singing; it’s a natural phonological transformation that occurs in ordinary speech — the same palatalization that leads “k” to become “ch” before mid and high front vowels leads “sk” to become “sh” without any need for an intermediate “s-ch”.

    • Ahh, sorry, – looks like I can’t comment directly to your post below, and I couldn’t find it again when I started typing about “mott-her.” Not sure if you saw my other comment, but I was wondering about the fact that “ex” is a prefix. Take, for (random) instance, an English word like “prepaid.” Without knowing that “pre” is a prefix, it could easily look like “prep-aid.” Even “prefix” could look like “pref-fix.” I wouldn’t really know if the same rules apply in Latin, but that’s what’s bothering me about it. If so, then the word “mother” is an unfair comparison because it does not contain a prefix.

      • A good, thoughtful question. But there’s no reason to think it would make a difference in this case. By the time of liturgical Latin (the kind of Latin that has sc as “sh”), the form of “excelsis” and its related verb “excellere” were very well established and had been for centuries (indeed, the root “cellere” is only attested in compounds, even in Classical Latin). It’s not a question of thinking that there’s a celsis, and then there’s this ex-celsis; it was as fixed a form as “definitely” is in modern English — a word that, by morphological analysis, would be said “de-finite-ly,” but so few people even notice the “finite” that it’s commonly misspelled “definately” and abbreviated “def”.

        Beyond that, my understanding — I don’t have my Ecclesiastical Latin reference ready to hand as I write this because I’m at work and it’s at home, so I’m going by recollection — is that this phonological transformation occurs in Ecclesiastical Latin even in “new” formations. But “excelsis” in Latin is a very well established formation that throughout Latin is really its own word, rather than an instance parallel with “prepaid” and “prefix”.

        A viable question, though!

  14. WOW!- Who could have known there could be so much dicussion over this well known phrase? Thank you all for the enlightenment! Regardless of how I pronounce it- I think I’ll sing it! 🙂

  15. Most of these postings are odious to read. Confusing and totally ungrounded. How dare any of you say that choir directors know more than Latin teachers. And nothing I read proves anything. What may I ask is wrong with singing “eks-chel-sis” It sounds perfectly fine when a choir sings it. And the c sounds like an Italian c. Latin originated in Rome and should be pronounced as much like Italian as possible, in my opinion. Singing “Eggshell” is the most hideous distortion of italian I have ever heard. The choir then sounds as if they are singing “a shell’ without any g or k.

    Why are choir directors afraid of consonants? Most choir directors are out of their minds with their shocking distortions of correct diction. They make up these rules to validate themselves because they lack in other areas of musical enlightenment and ability.

    interesting to note that Sanskrit is also abused by pundits and professed experts.


    • Hello, Darren (djm), I totally agree with you! In Italian, c followed by e or i is pronounced ch; C followed by a, o, or u is pronounced as a k. Some of the commenters mention “sc” or “s-ch” – but neither is found in “excelsis” – where do they get that from?

      • See comment below… x+c = ks+c because x=ks. Don’t take my word for it; check a text on ecclesiastical Latin (I cite one in the comment below). There’s no historical basis for “ks+ch” as a pronunciation; it’s an innovation.

        Now, choir directors are free to do all sorts of things with diction for the sake of musicality, but what needs to be recognized is that there is no more basis in Latin (or Italian) usage for “eks-chell-cease” than there is in English usage for saying, for instance, “mott-her” for “mother”.

        I’m inclined to think that the “ks-ch” pronunciation arose out of a mistaken belief that it was the most correct (making it what linguists call a hypercorrection). Once that belief is laid aside, it can be addressed in the same way as one addresses other possible fancies of choral conductors, for example singing “nation” as “na-see-on” or “na-tsee-on” even “na-tee-on”: it’s music, you can do it if you think it sounds more musical, but it does diverge from the standard language.

      • Hi Dr. Hardy,

        Glad to see a fairly recent post so I don’t feel like I’m beating a dead horse. I got into a bit of an argument with my choir director today about this, so I’m concerned (and paranoid).

        My only confusion is whether the sound of the c would be unchanged because “ex” is a prefix. I understand that the “s” sound in the x may soften the c – someone above commented that saying “eks-chell” would be like saying “mott-her” instead of “mo-ther.” But, since it is a prefix, wouldn’t the root word maintain its own sound?

        I was defending “eks-chell” and she was making us sing “egg-shell.” Usually, she even asks the “Latin scholars” in the choir to help guide the choir (which is hilarious, as having some knowledge of pronunciation is nowhere near scholarship)… and she usually listens to the conservatory-trained singers’ input. Not today, and nobody stuck up for me, either, so I was paranoid that I was completely off base. Glad to see other people agree with me.

        All in all, it really doesn’t matter… Latin was pronounced differently wherever it was spoken, which was all over the place. Unless you’re going for complete authenticity with a piece written when Latin was still alive (good luck with that) then there’s really no use trying to agree on one correct set of rules, since every region had their own anyway.

    • Except it’s not Italian, it’s Latin. Modern Italian is different from classical Latin, as it’s derived from vulgar Latin instead of the Latin of say, Cicero. The Italianate Ecclesiastical Latin was probably what the person who wrote the piece intended, so I agree that Italianate Latin should be used, but in classical Latin, the “c” should be a hard “k”

  16. djm, “ek-shell,” not “ex-chell,” would be the Italian pronunciation (Italian doesn’t have xc anywhere that I can think of, but sc before e or i is “sh” not “s-ch”). The rules for Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation match those for modern Italian pronunciation (no sense appealing to classical Latin any more than one would appeal to Chaucerian English for a guide to Modern English), and so xc before i or e is “ksh,” not “ks-ch.” (See, for example, John F. Collins, _A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin_, p. 3.) “Eggshell” is thus closer to correct Italian and Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation than “ex-chell” is, because it involves only a difference in voicing of one phoneme (which, with a stop, is really just a small difference in quality and length of the preceding and following phonemes), as opposed to the addition of another phoneme.

    Also, de gustibus non est disputandum, but I’m not very fond of hearing “ex-chell.” “Egg-shell” isn’t quite “ek-shell,” but it’s close, and I mind it somewhat less. I reckon, though, with many choirs, especially the larger ones, most people in the audience are unlikely to hear a difference between the two!

  17. Thank u for the wonderful research and comments. But I heard Josh Groban singing as “ex-telsis duo” and it sounds great.

    Any comments on this pronounciation.

  18. The correct pronunciation is, especially in a choral setting, ek-shell-sees. Some choir directors use egg-shell-sees. I personally think that’s very sloppy. Ekshellsees allows for more energy in rhythm and sounds cleaner when sung.

    As for ex-chell-sees, if sung that way, there is a very high possibility that the rhythm will not be unified. In order to pronounce the word in this manner, you have to almost reset your tongue which takes time to do. The k consonant and the ch sound is very hard to put together one after the other and will result in sloppy rhythm among the group as a whole. Ek-shell-sees is both easier to sing at a fast pace and results in better diction and rhythm.

  19. Thank you for this research, as it will allow me to do what Mrs. Baxter -my 11th grade English professor- taught me… when all else fails, fall back on English. As there are several ways excelsis can be pronounced, I will pronounce it without giving in to the non-existant “h”, so as ‘cel’, not ‘chel’.

    Again, thank you.

  20. But, the song is originally French. Why do we want to pronounce the Latin in Italian, if the original hymn was written in French?
    According to good ol’ Wikipedia, if we pronounce it as the French would, it’s ek-sell-sees.

    • Indeed, if we’re singing it in French (those parts that aren’t Latin), we do have good reason to sing the Latin in the French style. If we’re singing it in English translation, we can sing the Latin in English style, or we can go with an ecclesiastical Latin style, or we can decide that the Latin is still “in French” for some reason. Or we can pick something else if we want. But we should be aware of our reasons for doing so, and their basis, I reckon.

      Meanwhile, choirs everywhere are absolutely butchering many other languages (foreign to them) that they happen to be singing in. Latin has it easy by comparison. The compromises that conductors of Anglophone choirs find they have to make when their choir is singing in Russian, for instance…

  21. I like the [ɛgʃɛlsis] pronunciation for more vibrant spaces. the [ʃ] and [tʃ] pronunciations would stick out way too much. If you were in a less vibrant space [ɛkʃɛlsis] would be just fine. Of course in would be pronounced [in], but that’s pretty much universal.

  22. It is true that there are two versions of Latin pronunciation: Classical and Medieval/Ecclesiastical (church) Latin. The church Latin is very similar to Italian pronunciation. For instance when Pilate says of Jesus, “Behold! The man.” or ‘ecce homo.’ It would be pronounced ‘eht-chay hoh-moh.’ But in classical Latin it would be ‘ehk-ay hoh-moh.’ So “in excelsis deo” would be “in ehks-kehl-sees day-oh.” The way that Latin was pronounced by the Romans is not unknown to us. One’s intuition would say that there has been no handing down of the spoken language because it’s a dead language, and therefore “Who knows?” After all there are no audio recordings of actual Romans speaking Latin that we can use to reference, right? Well, yes, but it’s been accurately reconstructed in a reliable manner. (See section 3 of this document

    • Well, correction, after some thought. The song is obviously of an ecclesiastical origin. The Bible was not originally written in Latin. The section of the gospels where the angels are singing in the night sky would be where the lyric comes from, so since it’s the ecclesiastical pronunciation, it would be “in ex-chehl-sees day-oh.” Sheesh.

      • One more time: in ecclesiastical Latin, as in Italian, a “s” sound before a “ch” sound is always a “sh” sound because the “ski” and “ske” went directly to “sh” without passing through “sch” (yes, that can and does happen, witness Swedish and Norwegian) — even across morpheme boundaries, as in excelsis. So “ek shell sees” but never ever “ex chell sees”. Just as never “pros chop toe,” always “pro shoot toe” for prosciutto.

  23. FWIW, a couple of years later, the foreword to the Liber Usualis (the sort of Ultimate Guide To All Things Ecclesiastical and Chanty and Latin) doesn’t just quote a rule for “ek-shell-sis,” it actually uses “ek-shell-sis” as the example itself. So in ecclesiastical Latin, “ek-shell-sis” is officially correct, according to the Official Church. I’ve been trying for years to figure out where “ex-chell-sis” came from, but I can’t find any actual documentation…

  24. Our hope in the midst of all this is that God actually gets glorified through his Church. May your hearts be filled with everything He is and everything He does. I love your scholarly responses and the energy all of you have expended in this. Its great. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace!

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