Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Answer: Word Nerd Rears Her Head

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:


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


Kristina P. said...

Very interesting! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thanks Annette. I find all this totally fascinating. Especially since I live in Canada and have to listen to the word pronounced with an F. Every time you talk about the OED, I become more convinced I am going to have to get me one. As for the Big, pink pig - do tell.

annie valentine said...

Never mind about my last email, I decided to meet you online. I knew your name looked familiar!

Tristi Pinkston said...

You are a nerd. But that's why we love you! And you make the rest of us smarter!

Melanie Jacobson said...

I just deleted a long comment I made out of sheer stupidity. Wait, dangling modifier. I deleted it out of sheer stupidity. I didn't make the comment out of sheer stupidity.

Anyway, my husband has bugged me a few times about whether you had posted your explanation or not, so he was pretty excited to hear it. We both agreed in a conversation once that we would each get a second masters in linguistics if we ever were crazy enough to got through that wringer again, just because it's such a fascinating field.

Have you ever read The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer? It's fun, and full of plosives and glottal stops. Good stuff.

Thanks for explaining the mysterious leff-tenant.

Cheryl said...

Thank you! I have always wondered about this "Leff-tenant" pronunciation. I'm not kidding! I think he happened years ago when I watched my first film based on a Jane Austen novel. I must have been 13 years old or so...

I'm glad you're a word nerd. We need those around!

Annette Lyon said...

Yay! Who knew there were so many people who *like* this stuff!

Stephanie, definitely get the OED. Best b-day present ever.

Annie, thanks for dropping by!

Melanie, I like your husband even more now. Any man who like linguistics has gotta be cool. I like Louise Plummer, but I haven't read that one. Yet. I'll plan on it!

Anonymous said...

i love reading nerdy stuff like that. especially when its well written. i.e. understandable even for a dummy cow like me. :)

awesome post!

David G. Woolley said...

Absolutely brilliant!

Alison Wonderland said...

Love this stuff, now can you tell me why Dick is short for Richard? No, I'm serious.

Annette Lyon said...

Alison, That's a really good question--one I've wondered about too. I'll see if I can find an answer!

Heather Justesen said...

Annette, I've wondered about this too, and I've totally wanted an OED for years, but it's still way out of my price range right now--unless the price has drastically dropped since my college years.

Someday though. Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...

Well this is an ancient post, and i'm much much less of a word nerd then you. But the way I understood it wasn't that U and V were interchangeable, it was that V was used for both the V sound and the U sound, making V usable for both, but U still just a U.


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