A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Ave Maria – Hail Mary in French

By Emeritus Professor John Dunmore

This prayer is one of the most frequently recited in the world. Either as a single prayer, morning or evening, or on some special occasion, or as part of the Rosary. In a single day in New Zealand or Australia, it is easy to assess that it is said ten thousand times or more.

Its Latin version – Ave Maria -- links nations across the world in a single prayer, but understandably there are other versions widely used, or often preferred, in local languages, English, French, Spanish and so on.

The translations are close, but occasionally need adjusting to fit in with a linguistic problem. In French, for instance, a word has been added for greater clarity or precision.

"Pray for us sinners" has become ‘poor’ or ‘wretched sinners’ because of a similarity in the words for ‘sinner’ and ‘fisherman.’

A fisherman or ‘pescator’ is close to the word for sinner, ‘peccator’ of the phrase ‘nobis peccatoribus,’ -- ‘for us sinners’ -- and the French words which are descended from the original Latin, ‘pecheur,’ are distinguished only by the accent on the letter ‘e’: acute for ‘sinner’ and circumflex for ‘fisherman’ – ‘pécheur’ and ‘pêcheur.’ These accents are merely matters of spelling and the difference in their sounds is so slight that it can hardly be noticed in daily speech.

Therefore, in the French version of Ave Maria, the word ‘pauvre’ has been added – “priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs,” -- so that when recited, the prayer does not run the danger of saying "pray for us fishermen."

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