Why is "ph" pronounced "f"?

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Why is "ph" pronounced "f"?

Post by Archived Topic » Fri Nov 12, 2004 8:13 am

English words of Greek origin often use "ph" rather than "f", e.g. "elephant", "photograph". But why? Why is the single Greek letter phi transliterated as TWO Roman letters, especially when a perfectly good equivalent, "f" already exists? I expect the answer lies somewhere with the ancient Romans (particularly since the Germans actually do the logical thing with "elefant" and "fotograf"). Was "ph" ever pronounced differently from "f"?
Submitted by Simon Beck (London - England)
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Why is "ph" pronounced "f"?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Nov 12, 2004 8:27 am

The OED has this to say:

PH: a consonantal digraph, having usually the phonetic value of F. It was the combination used by the Romans to represent the Greek letter , or , named , Ph. This letter, cognate with Skr. bh (and so with Germanic b), was in early Greek written , and was a real aspirated p; it was subsequently often written , , and had then prob. nearly the same sound as German pf; but by the second century b.c. it had sunk into a simple sound, prob. the bilabial spirant (the sound made in blowing through the lips). As the Roman F was dentilabial, like mod. Eng. f, the Romans in earlier times represented the Greek not by F, but by PH; in the time of the Emperor Severus, however, the two began to be confused, and from c 400 were treated as identical. Hence in late popular and medival Latin, and in the Romanic languages, f was often substituted, as it is now regularly in Italian and Spanish (e.g. fantasia, filosofia, Filippo, fotografico). This was also the case to a great extent in Old French, and in Old and early Middle English (see Pharisee, Philistee, phantom, pheasant); but here, under the influence of the Latin forms, most words so written were subsequently altered back to ph, the preponderance of which is particularly notable in Gower. Exceptionally the f remains in mod. Eng., as in fancy (= phantasy), fantastic. In all modern words of Greek derivation (e.g. in phano-, philo-, phospho-, photo-, phyto-) ph is alone found.

One consequence of these conditions was that in the 15th, 16th, and 17th c., ph was frequently substituted for f in words not of Greek origin, esp. in words that were somewhat rare, the scribes apparently taking ph as a more learned, and thus presumably more correct, spelling. Many instances of this will be found under F, and among the cross-references given below, as in phalucco, phan, phane, phang, pharman, philaser, philhorse, philimot, etc. This spelling is often retained in philabeg = filibeg, and in certain interjections, phew! pho! phoo! where perhaps it may have been adopted to express the simple bi-labial (lip-breath) consonant (the sound made in blowing) as distinct from the labio-dental f. Modern phonologists, e.g. Mr. A. J. Ellis in his Palotype, have used ph as the symbol of the bi-labial sound. Greek had the initial combination -, in Roman spelling phth-. This was difficult for the Romanic nations, and in the only early word of this class, phthisicus, was reduced to pht, th, or simple t. See phthisic, etc. In mod.F. words in phth are now normally pronounced ft-; in Eng. the ph is generally mute and the th pronounced; but in scientific words many scholars pronounce (f-), a combination which is quite as easy as (sf-) in sphere. Ph (pronounced f) is also used to represent Hebrew (without dagesh), and even initial (according to the Masoretic pointing, with dagesh) in proper names which have come to us through a Greek form with : see Pharaoh, Philistine, seraph. In the Roman spelling of Indian languages ph represents the true aspirated p ( of Sanskrit), and this is occasionally the origin of ph in alien words: cf. phulkari.
Reply from Leif Thorvaldson (Eatonville - U.S.A.)
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Why is "ph" pronounced "f"?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Nov 12, 2004 8:41 am

Few, how skolarly, Leiph!
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
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Why is "ph" pronounced "f"?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Nov 12, 2004 8:56 am

Yep, Edwin! Me and my OED are a scholarly act!
Reply from Leif Thorvaldson (Eatonville - U.S.A.)
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