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Where did the Greek consonant cluster "ps" come from? I tried finding resources to track down this fun-sounding consonant cluster but came with no information. I was thinking about a voicing change and fusion in the Afro-asiatic consonants b and z (As in Arabic biz'r - toasted pumpkin seed) from a Phoenician loanword of something, but that is unlikely for me. If it wasn't Phoenician loanwords, then how did the consonants p and s form together in the languages evolution?

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    I'm not quite sure what you're asking. Most often it just came from a labial consonant before /s/, same as in Latin.
    – Draconis
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 1:41
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    Greek had letters for the clusters /ks/ and /ps/ (the case of */ts/ is more complicated) because the clusters were so common. A lot of Greek suffixes started with /s/, and a lot of the roots and stems they were added to ended with stops, so whenever /p/, /ph/, or /b/ wound up before an /s/, it was neutralized to PSI. Similar for /k/, /kh/, and /g/ neutralizing to XI. Just an abbreviation that caught on, really, like the Umlaut in German developing from a raised "e".
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 3:21
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    It's an interesting and good question, but Afroasiatic connection you seem to be suggesting is impossible. I suggest you add the indo-european tag and remove at least arabic (Early Greek had word-initial /ps/, /pt/ long before, and by long I mean at least 1000y, before Arabic was a language in its own right). Did you check Allen's Vox Graeca? The related πτερόν, πέτομαι (found already in Od.) immediately suggest the IE ablaut, but I cannot remember a similar vowel intrusion into words starting with the ψ. Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 4:40
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    @jlawler Greek has psi and ksi not because those clusters are especially common (they aren't), but because they're the only consonant clusters that can occur word-finally.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 20:30
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    @Cairnarvon Well, there is -λς (though it's rare), and many dialects had -νς. Anyway I'm not sure that explains why Greek uses those letters -- they could just as easily have done without them, and did in early versions of the alphabet.
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 4:08

1 Answer 1

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It's important to note that whilst Greek does spell /ps/ with a single letter, it does not represent a single phoneme, but a sequence of two.

In native vocabulary, Greek /ps/ continues the Proto-Indo-European sequence ps, bs, bʰs, kʷs, ɡʷs, and ɡʷʰs (the latter three only if not preceded by u or w). In most cases these occur across morpheme boundaries (in particular, masculine & feminine root nouns whose stem ends in a labial stop will all have a psi /ps/ in the nominative singular).

Most word-initial /ps/ in Greek appear to be from the Pre-Greek substrate though. The exact linguistic affiliation of this substrate is unknown, but an Afroasiatic affiliation is generally considered to be implausible. See Beekes for more information of Pre-Greek.

There may be some words with /ps/ in them in Greek that are borrowed from Afroasiatic sources, but these will be few in comparison to the other two sources.

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  • At this point I'm also curious on why it ended up spelled as a single letter, though
    – Martino
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 13:41
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    that is probably worth a separate question
    – Tristan
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:51
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    It can also continue a labiovelar plus s.
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 16:55
  • @TKR good point, I'll add that to the answer
    – Tristan
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 17:47

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