According to this other question, Late Latin used various digraphs with the letter Z in them, for sounds which might have been /ts/, /dz/, and /z/. If the letter Z was used for /z/ at the time, the latter two make sense.

But why use Z when writing the sound /ts/, especially when this same combination appears in native words like etsi?

This doesn't seem to have been a solely Latin phenomenon, as one Byzantine emperor was called Τζιμισκής (Tzimiscēs) in Greek, possibly transcribing Armenian /tʃ/. On the other hand, Modern Greek seems happy to use τσ (ts) for this sound.

  • Meaning in Late or Medieval Latin (i.e. not Classical Latin)?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 22:29
  • @AlexB. Indeed, though if there's any information on it being used in Classical times that would also be interesting!
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 23:07

3 Answers 3


Archaic and Classical Latin

First of all, the letter Z has never been common in Archaic and Classical Latin, for a number of reasons, primarily because there was no such phoneme (see more on rhotacism in Latin).

The earliest example of Z we have from Latin inscriptions is dated 81 BC, although it can be found in earlier Latin abecedaria - see my other post on this, with an image. The letter was reportedly despised by some Romans because it "dentes mortui dum exprimitur imitatur."

The only known exceptions are some Greek loans (mostly proper nouns?). After all, as Gary Miller puts it, "The letters Y and Z at the end of the alphabet were borrowed directly from Greek to represent Attic /ü/ and /zd/ (or /dz/)" (Miller 2014: 38). Note that originally ζ "was normally borrowed as s" (Miller):

word-initial: sona and zona (in Plautus mss) cf. ζώνη; Saplutus, Saplutius, or Zaplutus cf. ζάπλουτοσ ; Sosumus cf. Ζώσιμοσ (the first example is from Miller 2014, the last two are from Adams 2016: 241).

word-internal: massa cf. μᾶζα.

For a comprehensive treatment we have to look it up in Biville 1990 - which I don't have at hand now.

Secondly, there is no hard evidence to support the claim that z was realized as [ts] in Archaic or Classical Latin.

  • Faliscan (the closest Italic language): Bakkum 2009 writes that “The idea that z- may have represented [ts] is difficult” (p. 85).
  • Etruscan: z is generally assumed to be [ts] (Wallace 2008); although Agostiniani argues, based on typological considerations, it was a palatal affricate [tʃ].
  • Oscan: z represented [ts], e.g. húrz 'garden' (<*χortos)
  • Umbrian: z (?)

Sihler 1995 argues that when zeta was "carried to Italy" (borrowed into Proto-Italic? borrowed into some Italic language?), its phonetic value was [ts] (p. 194).

Leumann et al.(§9a) mention the following epigraphic evidence of the digraphs:

  • zb: Lezbia (cf. Lesbia);
  • zd: Artavazdis,
  • zm: Zmyrna (cf. Smyrna), Zmaragdus (cf. Smaragdus), Cozmus, Azmenus.

Note that there were two spelling variants, with s and with z (the latter more accurately representing the original phonetic form in Greek - NB: regressive assimilation). The most important thing is that such digraphs were extremely rare.

Finally, it is well-known that the cluster ts is not allowed by Latin phonotactics. Re: etsi - after all, as they say, una hirundo non facit ver.

Post-Classical Latin

With Late Latin, it's a completely different story. Peter Stotz ([Stotz 1996, vol. 3][5], §283) mentions the following phonetic realizations of the letter z in post-Classical (i.e. Late and Medieval) Latin:

  • [dz]: zebus (CL diebus), zabulus (CL diabolus), oze (CL hodie);
  • [z]: zona, zmurdus (smurdus or smordus), thezauraria (cf. CL thesaurus);
  • [tʃ]: zelum (CL caelum), zesa (CL caesa);
  • [ts]: zinamomum, zynamomum, or even çinamomum (CL cinnamomum).

Data from modern Indo-European languages, such as German or Italian, in this context is irrelevant because such spelling practices clearly go back to Ancient Greek.

I have tried not to overload my answer with too many technical details, so if you'd like to know more about any specific part, do let me know.

  • This answer just keeps getting better and better! I do have to ask, though, how do we know that zelum had [tʃ] and zinamomum [ts]?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 17:45
  • Stotz writes that if the spelling of a word alternates between z and c (or c cedilla), it means z was pronounced as [ts], cf. "Dort, wo das Schriftzeichen z für stimmloses ts steht, teilt es sich mit dem Graphem c (soweit dieses vor e oder i steht) in denselben Lautwert." Did I understand him correctly?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 20:41

Note that the letter Z has been associated with affricate sounds like [ts] for a very long time.

Ancient use of "Z" for affricate sounds

Zeta in Classical Attic Greek is thought to have represented [zd], but there is some evidence for [dz] as another pronunciation that existed in different dialects or stages of Greek.

On this site, Alex B's answer to "Why are there no native Latin words with a Z?" mentions that "Weiss 2009/2011 [...] hypothesizes that originally Z was probably pronounced as [ts] [in the context of Italic/Latin orthography]".

The Wikipedia article on Etruscan indicates that it used Z to represent an affricate sound transcribed by the article as "ts".

Modern use of "Z" for affricate sounds

Of course, there are a number of modern languages that use "Z" to represent an affricate, such as Italian and German.

I would guess "Z" has been associated with affricates throughout its history

Based on this information, I have the impression that "Z" has always been associated with affricates to some degree, so even in eras or places where its usual value was a simple fricative /z/, it would be available for use in digraphs for foreign affricates.

"Ts" isn't necessarily the obvious choice for representing an affricate

My understanding is that in Classical Latin, "ts" occurs only in morphologically transparent compounds where the first part ends in "t" and the second part starts with "s" (see the comments beneath TKR's answer here). Furthermore, this means that Latin "ts" can always be analyzed as a heterosyllabic sequence /t.s/. It isn't necessarily possible to analyze a foreign affricate in these terms.

  • Nice answer! Can confirm that the Etruscan equivalent to Z (which looked something like an I) was probably /ts/ given its distribution. But if Z generally represented an affricate on its own, then what would have been the difference between TZ and Z on its own?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 3:05
  • 2
    @Draconis: I don't mean to say that Z on its own generally represented an affricate in Latin. What I mean is that the idea that Z could be used to represent an affricate seems to have been common throughout the centuries. Maybe (this is just speculation) the situation could be compared to how modern English speakers know that Z is typically /z/ in English words, but they also know that Z or TZ can be /ts/ in foreign words or names like "Schulz".
    – Asteroides
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 3:09
  • 1
    @Draconis: ...That is, even if "Z" is standardly a representation of the voiced fricative /z/ in the writing system of some particular time and place, that doesn't necessarily indicate that the users of that writing system have no idea that "Z" could represent some other sound in other writing systems.
    – Asteroides
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 3:16

In Byzantine and Modern Greek τζ is used for /dʒ/ and τσ for /tʃ/ in foreign words, in MG especially in loans from Turkish, e.g. τζαμί < T. cami /dʒami/ “mosque”, and τσάι for çay /tʃaj/ “tea”. This does not really have anything to do with Latin.

  • 1
    Inaccurate. The digraph τζ was the only digraph used for any of /dz, ts, dʒ, tʃ/ in Byzantine and Early Modern Greek; τσ only started being used in the 19th century. Thus older έτζι for contemporary έτσι; and in fact Tzimiskes is now written as el.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ιωάννης_Α΄_Τσιμισκής in Greek. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 14:20
  • @NickNicholas: That's really interesting; I'd always wondered about the use of τζ in Mediaeval times to represent an apparent [tʃ] in foreign names. The modern distinction between τσ and τζ is certainly an improvement. I wonder why τσ wasn't used from the start to represent a foreign [ts] or [tʃ] ?
    – varro
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 17:00
  • Not really quite my area of expertise, but I wanted to share the following quote from Gary Miller: "The sounds /ts/, /dz/ were reintroduced in Middle Greek, spelled τσ, τζ - also used for alveolopalatal affricates" (Miller 2014: 41). Middle (or Medieval) Greek was supposedly between 500-1500.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 17:07
  • 1
    @NickNicholas. I am grateful for the correction.
    – fdb
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 22:27
  • @Alex B. All I can say is, I've read plenty of Middle Greek (in printed editions, admittedly, and not manuscript), and I simply don't remember seeing any τσ. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 22:55

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