In English, the voiceless stops/plosives (p, t, k, "hard" c) are aspirated, particularly when beginning a word. That is, speakers release a burst of air when saying pop, tea, kaluha, or coffee (put your hand in front of your mouth and try it).

However, in a Romance language like Spanish, these consonants are unaspirated: very little air is released when pronouncing them (see Is the /p/ sound aspirated in Spanish?).

I'd like to know how these voiceless plosives were pronounced in Classical Latin. Were they aspirated? How do we know?

  • 3
    I cannot resist mentioning Catullus' poem to Harrius in this context. The word chommoda makes no sense if the 'c' in commoda were strongly aspirated.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 20:37
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Definitely. Catullus and Cicero both (and probably others) can be seen to address this question; I'd love to see an answer based on these writings. Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 20:43

1 Answer 1


W. Sydney Allen, Vox Latina, 12–13, contends that the voiceless plosives in Latin were, compared to English, "relatively unaspirated," but that some aspiration may have been tolerated.

First, evidence for a lack of aspiration can be seen in Greek transcriptions of these letters: π, τ, κ were used for p, t, and c/qu ("e.g., Καπετωλιον, Κοιντος for Capitolium, Quintus"), which is significant because these "Greek letters can only stand for unaspirated plosives." Allen also mentions the unaspirated nature of these consonants in Romance languages as evidence for a lack of aspiration in Latin.

However, because Latin did not contrast unaspirated and aspirated plosives, Allen argues that "some degree of aspiration could theoretically have been tolerated." He also suggests that the way some words were borrowed from Greek is indirect evidence that some aspiration was employed.

For example, the Greek word πύξος begins with a voiceless unaspirated consonant, π. This word is borrowed into Latin, however, as buxus, not puxus. Something similar happens with κυβερνω (which becomes guberno) and κόμμι (gummi).

The reason for this can be illustrated in English. English speakers associate aspiration with voicelessness, so they tend interpret a lack of aspiration as voice, even though none is there. So the unaspirated voiceless p and k sound as though they are voiced, and are heard as b and g, respectively.

Apparently, then, Latin speakers, hearing words like πύξος and κόμμι, understood the initial consonants like English speakers might, and transcribed them with b and g. Thus, like English speakers, they must have associated aspiration and voicelessness to at least some extent, possibly indicating that their voiceless plosives p, t, c, and qu had some aspiration.

Allen summarizes:

One should probably not insist too strongly on the complete avoidance of aspiration in Latin.

  • The usage of ph, th, ch in Latin for words of Greek origin with φ, θ, χ, further strenghtens the assumption that they indeed did differentiate aspirated from unaspirated. Further evidence for this, is found in poetry: ph/th/ch do not count as long syllables; sometimes, it is contrasted, e.g. Tib.1.5 ‘sulphure puro’.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 6:59
  • What does "tolerated" mean? (I know the word, but in this context, what does he mean by "tolerated"?
    – Quidam
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 23:11

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