It's been weeks since MelanieJ asked a linguistic question involving the letter Q. In typical word nerd fashion, I dug around and answered it. Because I have a compulsion like that.
In the comments, I volunteered to explain why Brits insist on pronouncing "lieutenant" as if there's an "f" in the middle ("luff-tenant"). A couple of commenters expressed interest. Whether they were just being nice, I'll never know.
But for all three people out there who enjoy these things, here we go. Keep in mind that I'm not a linguist or an expert on these things. This is just what I've pieced together from my time in college and doing minor research on my own. So take it for what it's worth:
Many, many years ago (in the ages of Old and/or Middle English), the letters F and V were pretty much interchangeable and pronounced the same.
So fox could be (and often was) spelled vox.
Remember, this is before the printing press, public education, and other things cemented spelling rules and made the language change at a slower rate. Multiple spellings of the same word were common.
To complicate matters further, V and U were also interchangeable.
This is why you can find engravings atop public libraries where it's written out as:
with a V instead of a U. Ever seen that and wondered why? Yeah.
I don't have proof, but I think people most likely got lazy with the V and made it round at the bottom instead of pointy, and that's how U became interchangeable with V.
In many respects, then, the letters F, V, and U could all be used for each other. And they were. Sometimes they meant different sounds (sometimes a U/V meant a vowel and at others, U/V/F indicated a consonant).
Now if you check out the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary, my favorite toy and the best dictionary in English), it has an entry for FOXES from the year 1225.
It's spelled: UOXES.
Putting it all together:
The word lieutenant was probably spelled with an interchangeable U/V in the middle:
both as LIEUTENANT and LIEVTENANT.
Since V and F were also interchangeable, the word could be pronounced with an F sound where the V was: LieF-tenant (LUFF-tenant).
Somehow pronouncing it with the V/F sound (as far as I can tell, no one agrees as to WHY) stuck in the UK but didn't in the US.
Instead, Americans kept the U sound: LIEU-tenant instead of V-inspired LUFF-tenant.
Tada! (Did that make sense to anyone else?)
I know. I'm a nerd. And proud of it. This stuff is fascinating to me.
(Did you know there's linguistic rule called Grimm's Law named after Jacob Grimm of the BROTHERS GRIMM?! Way cool! Even better, the law is all about voiced and voiceless stops and fricatives and a bunch of wicked awesome linguistic terms like that. Fascinating, right? RIGHT?!)
There's a reason I'd love to study linguistics if I ever returned to school for a master's degree. (Total nerd. Yep.)
(Hey, Dad, thanks for making me one!)
If you beg and plead, maybe sometime I'll explain how voiced and voiceless stops are connected to the following phrase, and why they made it a tongue-twister for my Finnish classmates learning English:
The big, pink pig
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