Ph or F?

Have you ever wondered why both F and Ph can have the same sound in English?

Phone, philosophy, Philadelphia: force, far, fair etc.

I was thinking about this recently. I’ve changed the language of my phone to Italian, so if, for example, I get a notification that someone’s sent me a picture, the notification will usually show their name and the word foto (Italian for photo).

Obviously this highlighted that F and Ph have the same sound in English. But it also made me realise that F and Ph don’t enjoy the same status, as for a moment, foto looked like a tacky, abbreviated form of photo. Like in an old 24-HOUR FOTO sign.

This all goes back to Ancient Greek, specifically the letter phi (Φ uppercase, φ or ϕ lowercase). This was an aspirated P sound, very much like the sound of a P at the beginning of a word in English, as in part or picture. This was distinguished from an unaspirated P by adding an H after the letter. Therefore when the Romans transliterated phi into Latin, when borrowing words from Greek, it was represented as ph.

Meanwhile, over hundreds of years, the original sound of phi in Greek changed, and by the Middle Ages, it had shifted to an F sound. When this happened, the shift was transferred into Latin and English as well, and any words borrowed from Greek words with phi now used ph to represent phi‘s F sound.

That’s why F and Ph have the same sound, but why does Ph feel grander? Why does abbreviating words like photo to foto feel like cheapening them? Probably because of Ph‘s classical links. It’s come into English not just from Ancient Greek, but via Latin, so it carries with it all the cachet of both classical civilizations.

Of course it only works one way round, and we can’t upgrade a word by changing F to Ph. At least not yet anyway, but that might be the great linguistic trend oph 2020!

15 thoughts on “Ph or F?

    • I’ve always pronounced it like ‘fee,’ just sounds more Greek to me. I think most of us prefer ‘fie’ as we already have the word ‘fee.’ Whereas sadly ‘fie’ hasn’t survived into modern English, sadly.

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      • Also, ‘alpha’ is offer simply ‘ah’ in informal speech, and ‘beta’ is of course ‘vita’. There’s no ‘b’ phoneme in Greek. So, what we call the list of letters we use should really be called the ‘alphavit’. Or even the ‘avit’. The latter one sounds like an East End hooligan.

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  1. The problem with spelling ‘of’ as ‘oph’ is that ‘of’ is almost always pronounced with a /v/. If I saw ‘oph’ by itself, I would assume that it was meant to be ‘off’. We could combine that with the previously mentioned phuq and get phuqoph (which further research shows to be a user name on various social media (along with phuqoff).

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