I learned from Nathaniel's answer to my previous question that 'ch', 'th' and 'ph' were aspirated voiceless stops in classical Latin. In my experience many contemporary speakers of Latin pronounce 'ph' as /f/.

When did 'ph' turn into a fricative? How do we know when this happened? Was this change a regional thing or did it occur simultaneously in different places?

I have been told that a similar development happened to the Greek φ. Were these changes in Greek and Latin connected?

  • 2
    This is not only the question of time; a location is important as well. While most Pompeiians spoke Latin natively, Egyptian and Jewish inscriptions are more likely to be left by second language speakers. There is certainly some truth to this episode from The Life Of Brian: youtu.be/0lczHvB3Y9s
    – kkm
    Aug 20 '18 at 6:51

It's impossible to pinpoint an exact date, but there is evidence. As usual, Vox Graeca or Sihler's New Comparative Grammar is where to look.

The earliest inscription we have of a Greek phi transliterated as a Latin 'F' comes from Pompeii in the first century CE, where the name Daphne was inscribed on a wall as Dafne.

This might not have been monolithic, but Jewish catacombs in the first-third centuries CE transliterate PH as F and second century grammarians have rules on when to transliterate phi as F and when as PH. This latter tidbit is evidence that the Latin followed Greek speakers in making PH a fricative, as Clackson and Horrocks (2007: p. 275) note:

Where there was still contact with Greek speakers, the spoken language adopted the change of ph, etc. to fricatives, which had taken place in spoken Greek at the beginning of the Christian era.

'Ph' as a fricative in Latin appears to be fairly uniform as early as the second century. J. N. Adams notes this receipt from Egypt dated to c. 150 CE:

Idem cosulubus aeadem diem Domitius Theophilus scrisi me in ueditionem puellae Marmariae supra scriptae pro Aescine Aescine philium Flauianum secumdum auctorem exstitise.

Note the spelling of filium as philium. This would indicate that here in Egypt in the middle of the second century there is no difference in Latin in the pronunciation of PH and F. Interestingly about Egypt, though, is that apparently the shift never fully happened there. Coptic retained the aspirated plosives. Gignac (A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, Vol. I: Phonology, 1976) argues that in Egypt phi and chi remained as they were pronounced in Classical Greek. Horrocks (Greek, 2009) doubts this was ever universal, though it was widespread by the fourth century.

  • Many thanks! I understand that it's impossible to give an exact date, but can you give some bounds? One can probably say something like "in X essentially every 'ph' was an aspirated stop but the transition to fricatives was complete by Y", where X and Y are suitable centuries or other times. That would give a clearer answer to the question "when?".
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Mar 31 '16 at 14:33

I'd like to add some interesting data I found in Weiss 2009. He mentioned Purnelle 1995, Les usages des graveurs dans la notation d'upsilon et des phonèmes aspirés: Le cas des anthroponymes grecs dans les inscriptions latines de Rome. Liège: diff.

As you can see from the title, Gérald Purnelle studied how Greek proper nouns were transliterated in Roman inscriptions. I made a diagram to better present his findings.

enter image description here

  • 2
    Very interesting! Is this graph used to argue that the Latin ph was pronounced as a fricative? Incorporating how this graph is used to make that argument would be helpful. Without it, it seems that this data could also indicate that Greek's pronunciation of φ changed during this period, or that the pronunciation of ph became less fricative (it was replaced by f, after all). Apr 2 '16 at 13:03
  • What do you think, why isn't transliterating "phi" as "p" more common? Why were Romans who did not speak Greek able to hear the difference between 'ph' and 'p', when modern English speakers are not? Aug 24 at 20:02

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