I can't decide whether Ancient Greek had "geminate" or "long" consonants. In other words did γλῶττα stand for [glˈɔːt̪.t̪a] or for [glˈɔː.t̪ːa] ? The difference between geminate and long consonants is clearly expressed by John Laver, Principles of phonetics, chapter 14 : geminate=repetition of a same sound, unlike a long consonant.

geminate : I read in Michel Lejeune (Phonétique historique du mycénien et du grec ancien), page 70 (my translation) : "Geminate occlusives are the (phonemes) whose tense (=French 'tenue') is sufficient to be heard by ears and whose implosion and explosion, both audible, belong to two different syllables". From Lejeune's book I understand two ideas : Ancient Greek had geminate occlusives and these geminate became later long consonants (but I can't find the passage relative to this last idea).

long : I read in Sidney Allen (Vox Graeca, page 12) : "wherever the normal spelling writes a double consonant, it stands for a correspondingly lengthened consonant."

What do you think about ? Any help would be appreciated !

ADDENDUM : I have to apologize : the difference between gemination(=repetition) and gemination (lengthened consonant) isn't in John Laver, Principles of phonetics, chapter 14. This distinction appears in Lejeune's book (Phonétique historique du mycénien et du grec ancien, page 71, note 59-1) but Lejeune only cites another book (Maurice Grammont, Traité de phonétique, 52-57) where the definition between "geminated consonants, opposed to long consonants" (my translation of Lejeune's note) is given. I don't have Grammont's book so I can't go further. Is this distinction outdated ?

  • Good question. I strongly suspect and have always assumed Ancient Greek had no geminated occlusives, but I can't prove it.
    – Cerberus
    Nov 4, 2013 at 20:56
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    Gemination is consonant length - there's no distinction between the two. I'm not sure what you mean by "repetition of the same sound"; a "long/double/geminate" consonant is one whose closure is held for a longer time (presumably what Lejeune means by "tenue").
    – TKR
    Nov 4, 2013 at 23:27
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    @TKR: Perhaps he uses the wrong term (or perhaps the established definition of geminated is counter-intuitive and/or suboptimal), but it seems clear enough what he means? You can close-open-close instead of just close-pause, although I don't think many languages do the former with occlusives. I think you're right about Lejeune.
    – Cerberus
    Nov 5, 2013 at 2:59
  • @Cerberus: I don't think I've ever heard of a language where a sequence of two identical consonants is realized with release of the first and then re-closure for the second (putting aside epenthetic vowels, which are a different story). I searched inside the text of the OP's cited book for "geminate" and it doesn't describe any such process, as far as I could find. In any case it's clear that Greek didn't do this (which I think is what you meant above).
    – TKR
    Nov 5, 2013 at 3:21
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    @TKR: Yes, I used the OP's definition when I said Ancient Greek most probably did not have what he described. Is that Laver's book you have searched through? Perhaps the OP has misinterpreted both references.
    – Cerberus
    Nov 5, 2013 at 4:11

2 Answers 2


There have been at least two ways of making a distinction between gemination and mere consonant length:

  1. In late 19th century German linguistics (where the term was introduced, if I am not mistaken), geminates referred to (long) consonants with a two-peak pressure contour. Hence “geminated”. By contrast, a simple long consonant has only one pressure peak. There have been attempts at measuring the double peak in early instrumental phonetics, for instance in Dieth and Brunner (1943): «Die Konsonanten und Geminaten des Schweizerdeutschen experimentell untersucht». The results were inconclusive.

  2. There is another notion of gemination in phonology where it refers to a long consonant that corresponds to two elements on some layer of phonological analysis, whereas a simple long consonant corresponds to a single element that is lengthened (for instance in Ham (2001): Phonetic and Phonological Aspects of Geminate Timing, or in Kraehenmann: Quantity and Prosodic Assymetries in Alemannic). This is very theory-specific.

The habit of using the term gemination as a synonym of ‘long consonant’ has always seemed rather unfortunate to me. I think the term long consonant is preferrable because it is less obscure and has no history of referring to concepts that go beyond mere consonant length.

With regard to Ancient Greek, gemination in the first, phonetic sense is pointless, unless there were ancient grammaticians who had observed a double peak in pressure. Some authors may have analyzed it using some phonological sense of gemination, but I wouldn't know about that.


By observing Mycenaean (Linear B) words, we can assume that Greek never had geminate consonants. The system occurred as syllabic with all syllables open, i.e. ending in vowels. As the language evolved, phonetic changes such as consonantal assimilations, silence of some sounds (digamma, koppa etc.), syncopations and the application of suffixes after stems - among which geminate consonants - occurred, but also other clusters of 2 or 3 consonants, too.

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    Interesting. Have you any reference proving or explaining your assertion ?
    – suizokukan
    Sep 16, 2014 at 16:21
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    This answer is misguided. Mycenaean Greek did have consonant clusters, it is just that the orthographic system did not have a way of writing them.
    – fdb
    Sep 16, 2014 at 17:33
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    This is completely wrong; it's like saying that Hebrew has no vowels because they aren't represented in the writing system. The Linear B syllabary was not well suited for writing Greek, so many sounds were simply left out of the spelling.
    – TKR
    Sep 16, 2014 at 23:45

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