Learn English – “Ph” for the /f/ sound; Is Old English responsible for this swap


Is Old English responsible for creating the /f/ sound from ph, as in Philip, Pharoah, Physics, Sophia, etc? Many European countries keep the f for all of their /f/-sounding letters, as in Sofia and Stefan, for example.

Best Answer

Old English is definitely not responsible for this.

All of the words that you mentioned are Greek in origin, and they all contained the Greek letter φ (phi). In Classical Greek this was pronounced as an aspirated [pʰ], which the Latins wrote as ph when they borrowed the words from Greek. Later this sound changed into an [f] in both Greek and Latin, and was passed as such into French, and then into English.

Once the idea that ph was pronounced [f] was established, it spread to a few other areas, as well. Borrowings from Hebrew and other Semitic languages sometimes use ph, especially since the Hebrew letter פ can be [p] or [f] depending on context. Vietnamese regularly uses ph for [f], in this case because the modern Vietnamese orthography was designed by the French.