I have always been told that all Latin words with a Z are ancient Greek loanwords.

Why doesn't Latin have any native words with a Z?


Z is not originally a Latin letter! In fact, the letter we call Z wasn't Greek either, but rather had either an "sd" or "dz" sound (the jury is still out on which is correct, and there may have been regional variations).

But with Latin, it's not just that no words started with Z, but that the letter itself is Greek. They borrowed the letter to represent the Z sound in Greek words. The same is true for Y, which is why it is at the end of the alphabet.

(Incidentally, Latin didn't have J, U, or W, which are medieval additions.)

The standard reference for pronouncing Latin and its alphabet is W. Sidney Allen's Vox Latina (2nd ed., Cambridge 1989).

  • 3
    I think I get what you're saying, but the sentence "the letter we call Z wasn't Greek either" sounds strange to me. Zeta was a Greek letter; it seems what you're trying to say is that Greek zeta was not pronounced like modern English "z." Also, I believe "X" was in the Latin alphabet for a longer time than "Y" and "Z."
    – Asteroides
    Feb 23 '16 at 22:01
  • So, is the question about a letter or a sound? As is, your answer does't tell us why z wasn't a phoneme in Classical Latin.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 24 '16 at 14:13
  • Well, there was an allophone [z] in Latin, no? Are there Koisan clicks used in English in some contexts?
    – Alex B.
    Feb 25 '16 at 14:52
  • @C.M.Weimer "No, [z] was not Latin." Any evidence or reliable references? Also, please take a look at Meiser 1998 §28:5 or Weiss 2009/2011: 37 meanwhile. As for English phonology, I'm not sure what you meant but please feel free to post your question on linguistics.stackexchange.com and we can continue our discussion there.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 25 '16 at 16:55
  • @C.M.Weimer "Still irrelevant, too, considering the number of different sounds a single phoneme in English can have. The question of "why" makes no sense here." Let's keep this professional and polite. Thanks.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 25 '16 at 17:01

Z, allegedly, has a strange story. It was a Latin letter, then it became obsolete and was removed. It was then added back to accommodate words derived from Greek

According to a few sources, one of them Dictionary.com, Z was actually included in the original Latin alphabet, which itself was a derivation of the Etruscan alphabet:


Over the following years, z gradually rhotacized until /z/ made the same sound as /r/. A Roman consul, Appius Claudius Caecus, allegedly removed it from the Latin alphabet.

During the Roman conquest of Greece, the letter was added back in (along with y) to work with the words being added to the language derived from Greek.

  • 4
    If anyone has better sources for the above, I'd much appreciate it. I remember reading this in a far more reputable place, but I can't find it now. Of course, if anyone has sources denying the above, that'd be even better.
    – Undo
    Feb 23 '16 at 19:44
  • Because of your answer I got another question. You might know the answer to this or be intrested in it: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/58/…
    – Yadeses
    Feb 23 '16 at 20:11
  • 1
    Between our two answers, that new question is already answered...
    – cmw
    Feb 23 '16 at 20:44
  • I see now, silly me.
    – Yadeses
    Feb 23 '16 at 22:06
  • Oh, I'm tearing my hair out, because I'm sure I read recently Cicero bemoaning the replacement of "z" - or zeta" with "s" - but can't for the life of me remember where!
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 16 '16 at 20:49

Rex Wallace argues that the letter z “remained part of the alphabetic series until the third century BCE even though it seems to have been used sparingly – if at all – in Very Old and Old Latin inscriptions” (Wallace 2011: 15). He also cites Colonna 1980, who reportedly mentions a late 7th century BCE graffito ZKA on a fragment of a ceramic. Interestingly, in his table 2.4. “Comparison of archaic Etrsucan and Latin letterforms,” Wallace says “not attested” for zeta:

Comparison of archaic Etruscan and Latin letterforms

Wallace also includes a reproduction of Latin abecedarium that was incised on a ceramic plate (3rd century BCE), where the letter Z “appears in its proper position following F” (p. 15):

enter image description here

Eventually, the letter Z was replaced by G and we can’t find it in the Latin alphabet of the late republican period.

Weiss 2009/2011 writes that the first epigraphical attestation of Z is on a Roman denarius of 81 BCE. He also mentions evidence coming from ancient grammarians (Velius Longus, Varro, Martianus Capella) but there is no epigraphical evidence to confirm this. Weiss also hypothesizes that originally Z was probably pronounced as [ts].

For a more scholarly discussion we’d have to consult Wachter 1987 (chapter 2; caveat: it’s in German) but I don’t have a copy at hand now.

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