Unsteady turbulence in uniformly stratified unsheared flow is analysed using rapid distortion theory (RDT). For inviscid flow with no molecular diffusion the theory shows how the initial conditions, such as the initial turbulent kinetic energy KE0 and potential energy PE0, determine the partition of energy between the potential energy associated with density fluctuation and the kinetic energy associated with each of the velocity components during the subsequent development of the turbulence. One parameter is an exception to this sensitivity to initial conditions, namely the limit at large time of the ratio of potential energy to vertical kinetic energy. In the linear theory, this ratio depends neither on the Reynolds number Re, nor the Prandtl number Pr nor the Froude number Fr. This is consistent with turbulence measurements in the atmosphere, wind tunnel and water tank experiments, and with large-eddy simulations, where similar values of the ratio are found. The RDT results are extended to show the effects of viscosity and diffusion where Re is not very large, explaining the sensitivity of the spectra and the fluxes to the value of the Prandtl number Pr. When Pr is larger than 1, the high-wavenumber components of the three-dimensional spectra induce a vertical flux of temperature (density) that is positive (negative), and therefore ‘countergradient.’ On the other hand, when the thermal diffusivity is stronger and Pr is less than 1, lower-wavenumber components become countergradient sooner since the high-wavenumber components are prevented from becoming countergradient. When all the wavenumber components are integrated to derive the total vertical density flux, it becomes countergradient more quickly and more strongly in high-Pr than in low-Pr turbulence. All these theoretically derived differences between high-Pr and low-Pr turbulence are consistent with the experimental measurements in water tank and wind tunnel experiments and numerical simulations. It is shown that the initial kinetic and potential energy spectrum forms E(k) and S(k) near k = 0 determine the long-time limit values of the variances and the covariances, including their decay rate with time. In the special case of Pr = 1, the oscillation time period of the three-dimensional spectrum function is independent of the wavenumber and is the same as that of an inviscid fluid with the effect of viscosity/diffusion being limited to the damping of all the wavenumber components in-phase with each other. Furthermore, the non-dimensional ratios of the covariances, including the normalized vertical density flux and the anisotropy tensor, agree with the inviscid results if S(k) is proportional to E(k), or if either S(k) or E(k) is identically zero. However, even when Pr = 1, in the ‘one-dimensional spectrum’ in the x-direction, there is a transitory countergradient flux for high wavenumbers; only in this case is there a qualitative difference with the three-dimensioanl spectrum. This paper shows that the characteristic differences in the behaviour of stably stratified turbulence reported in previous DNS experiments at moderate Reynolds numbers can largely be explained by linear oscillations and simple molecular or eddy diffusion rather than by any new kinds of nonlinear mixing processes.