Vos Salutamus

My chief duty on graduation weekend in Sewanee is to coach the salutatorian on the Latin address.  The Commencement ceremony on Sunday begins with greetings in turn to the Chancellor and the Episcopal bishops whose dioceses own the university, the Vice-Chancellor and other administrators, the graduating class and lower-class students, parents, siblings, friends, and guests, all of it delivered in rather ornate formulaic language, and all of it in Latin. I’ve pasted the text with a translation below, in case you’re interested.

The person who has to say all of this is the salutatorian, and he or she will usually have no idea about this little ordeal until just about 72 hours beforehand.  The faculty turn in their grades for seniors on the Wednesday before graduation and the registrar’s office then heroically crunches all the numbers.  Final grade-point averages are calculated, and those at the bottom of the class sweat it out to see if they will be marching while those at the very top wait to find out who will be #1 and #2.  Once the grades are all calculated, the valedictorian is informed, and off they go to write up an address for delivery at Commencement.  The salutatorian, poor thing, is told to go see me.

Now and then, a student who has had some Latin will become salutatorian, of course, but many times the salutatory is the first time they will have encountered the old dead language.  My heart goes out to these people, and I have often wondered how I might feel in an analogous situation.  What if, during one of the busiest weekends of my life, I were told that I had to give a page-long tribute in public in Mandarin Chinese?  The fortunate thing, however, is that it isn’t me who has to do this, but somebody who is really, really smart.  The salutatorian is invariably a person with a GPA over 4.0, which means they routinely have been given A+s.

After yesterday’s Baccalaureate ceremony, I met with this year’s salutatorian, Brian Fennessy, in All Saints chapel to go over the address.  In addition to what must be said, there is also what one associate dean has called “the choreography,” since there is a fair bit of moving around.  The opening remarks are delivered to the chancellor and the bishops at the high altar, with the rest of it spoken down by the front of the choir stalls.  The videographer accompanies us as we rehearse it, so he will know where Brian is going as the address unfolds.

But at the heart of the thing is the language itself.  I have often been asked about the pronunciation of the Latin used at Sewanee.  It’s a church-affiliated institution, but we do not use “Church Latin” here.  I love the way Church Latin and all its rolling Italianate sound.  Of course, the choir customarily sings in Church Latin, with Gloria given to God “in ex-Chell-sis.”  But the Latin used at Sewanee has always been pronounced with a Classical Accent.  That means the C’s sound like K’s, and the V’s sound like W’s.  And for poor Brian, who has studied French here, that means some radical readjustment.  The first words of the address are a mouthful, no doubt about it.  Cancellarie Reverendissime, “Most reverend Chancellor.”  Kank-ell-Ar-ee-ay Re (short e!)-We (another short e!) -rend-iss-im-ay.

[Actually, it’s even worse.  The final syllables should be pronounced as short e’s as well, but since everyone has heard “Et tu Brutay,” good luck with that. Also, these are generally Southerners we’re talking about, who lengthen every vowel they encounter.]

[[And if you’re really looking to confuse someone, try to explain why this vocative isn’t a simple -i instead of -ie, as it ought to be, if Wheelock’s Latin Grammar is to be trusted, which in this case, it isn’t]]

Yikes.  How will Brian do today? Well, based on our practice today, I know he will do splendidly.  Give an address in Latin?  It’s a challenge, sure, but I have yet to meet the salutatorian who didn’t thrive on just such challenges.  Vos salutamus, salutatorians, past, present, and future.  We salute you.

[Update, May 23: How did Brian do?  As predicted, splendidly. It’s always a pleasure to watch a bright person confront and resolve a problem!  And look like he was enjoying it, to boot!]


Cancellarie reverendissime, huius universitatis princeps et pastor ecclesiae sanctae Domini nostri, te salutamus.

Patres in Deo, huius universitatis fideles custodes, vos salutamus.

Pro-Cancellarie nobilissime, societatis academicae nostrae dux fidelis et diligens, te salutamus.

Praeposite dignissime et decani illustres et sacerdos universitatis et professores sapientes, qui nos in quaestum veritatis amoremque rationis duxistis, vos salutamus.

Salvete hospites grati et condiscipuli fortunati.

Salvete discipuli inferiores.  Videte ut mores huius universitatis fideliter conservetis.

Salvete matres patresque amati, fratres, sorores et amici fideles.

Pro nobis omnibus qui in gradus eruditionis hodie admittamur, vos omnes in hac sollemni convocatione saluto, et vos spero semper habituros esse felicitatem et prosperitatem.


Most reverend Chancellor, head of this university and shepherd of Our Lord’s holy church, we salute you.

Fathers in God, faithful custodians of this university, we salute you.

Most noble Vice-Chancellor, faithful and diligent leader of our academic institution, we salute you.

Most worthy Provost, illustrious Deans, University Chaplain, and wise professors who lead us in the search for truth and the love of reason, we salute you.

Greetings, dear guests and fortunate fellow-students.

Greetings, lower-class students. See to it that you faithfully preserve the character of this university.

Greetings, beloved mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and loyal friends.

On behalf of all who today are entering upon this step of learning, I salute all of you in this solemn convocation, and I hope that you will ever have happiness and well-being.


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Education, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Vos Salutamus

  1. Vos salutamus, agreed. Thank *you* for the coaching.

    For next year, liven things up a bit with “Cancellarie Reverendissime, nos morituri te salutamus” and let the gladiatorial entertainment begin?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s