Ancient Greek had a three way contrast between voiced, unvoiced, and aspirated stops. It seems to be assumed that the unvoiced stops were pulmonic, but how do we know this?

A fact that may or may not have any bearing is that when there would otherwise be a sequence of two aspirated stops in successive syllables, the first one lost its aspiration (Grassmann's Law). Another is that certain initial stop clusters are uncommon or non-existent. The relatively common ones are pt, kt, and their aspirated correlates. Bd is uncommon and mainly used in words for ugly and disgusting things, while gd is more or less non-existent.

  • I'm not sure how the facts about Grassmann's Law and stop clusters are relevant - can you explain?
    – TKR
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 1:01

1 Answer 1


Typologically, stop systems of the type "voiced - aspirated - ejective", with no plain voiceless stops, are rare.

Also, if the Greek voiceless stops were ejective, then either they became ejective after PIE for some unexplained reason, or the PIE voiceless stops were ejective too and lost their ejective feature in every attested language, both of which are implausible scenarios.

Finally, there are some phonetic descriptions of these Greek sounds by ancient writers, and none of them suggests that they were anything but plain voiceless stops.

  • 2
    The typological claim you make is interesting, though I'm skeptical. As a native English speaker, I have always found the aspirated/unaspirated distinction difficult. I recently learned a little Georgian (a language that has the system you say is rare), and I have found the aspirated/ejective distinction far easier to produce and to hear. An important possibility to consider is that both airstream mechanisms could have been used, perhaps in different contexts. The fact that ancient writers don't specifically describe ejectives doesn't seem very significant. They never even understood voicing.
    – user39080
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 6:03
  • 1
    The historical part of your answer is perfectly fair. But (and maybe this wasn't clear in the original question) I am not so much asking about an ejective/non-ejective contrast but just about what some likely allophones might have been.
    – user39080
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 6:20
  • 3
    So you're asking whether the voiceless stops might have had ejective allophones in some position(s) (e.g. at syllable start)? If so, I don't know of any evidence against it, but I also don't know of any reason to think so. Plain vs. aspirated is a pretty common distinction, even if it's hard to hear for those of us who don't natively speak such a language (which is always the case with such distinctions).
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 29, 2013 at 17:45
  • Georgian and Greek have had contact since ancient times too. Jason and the Argonauts, the Golden Fleece, Christianity. Greece also has the largest Georgian expat communities I know of, in Athens and Thessaloniki. @user39080: It's usual for us native English speakers to have trouble with the aspirated/unaspirated distinction because our same series are also distinguished by being voiceless/voiced respectively, and that feature is more salient to us. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 7:22
  • There are some people in fringe Georgian linguistics who believe Georgian is an Indo-European language. I wonder if they have any thoughts about what @user39080 has noticed? Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 7:24

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