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For example, "wife" is "wives" in plural, as is knife, strife, etc. What's the reason and/or etymology behind this?

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+1 @Mark Richman: Just wondering, how did this question come up for you? Meaning what was the content that led you to ask it. –  blunders Jun 10 '11 at 17:24
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Oddly, we were discussing the similar pronunciations of "b" and "v" in many Spanish accents. –  Mark Richman Jun 10 '11 at 19:47
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An interesting anecdote about this historical fact is that of course the "proper" plurals of "elf" and "dwarf" are "elfs" and "dwarfs" in modern English. Tolkien felt that both words ought to have more of an "ancient" feel to them in his fictional world, so he deliberately chose "elves" and "dwarves". In one of his letters he takes to task the ignorant copy editors who attempted to change them back. –  Eric Lippert Jun 10 '11 at 20:23
    
@EricLippert No, that’s not true. Tolkien made dwarves match elves, and elves was already the standard plural. Thanks to Tolkien, the dwarves form is now at least as common as the dwarfs form. –  tchrist Mar 18 '12 at 4:43
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1 Answer

This is a throwback to Old English. The "f" would be pronounced like a "v" if it was between two vowels.

For example, the word for heaven was heofon and would have been pronounced something like "hayovon" (Sorry, no IPA).

Here's some information from an article on English plurals:

In Old and Middle English voiceless fricatives /f/, /θ/ mutated to voiced fricatives before a voiced ending.[6] In some words this voicing survives in the modern English plural. In the case of /f/ changing to /v/, the mutation is indicated in the orthography as well; also, a silent e is added in this case if the singular does not already end with -e:

enter image description here

(Adding screen snap here because the markdown here doesn't do tables easily.)

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The second part (quoted from the article), answers the question. The first part, about orthography, does not, since the sound change happened before most people were literate. –  Colin Fine Jun 10 '11 at 14:27
    
Note that this happened some with /s/, e.g. "is" is pronounced /iz/, and "louse" = /laws/ -> "lousy" = /lawzij/. –  Mitch Jun 10 '11 at 14:35
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@Colin Fine: There is a huge difference between "before most people were literate" and "before anyone was literate". Unless it is the latter then it is certainly relevant — why wouldn't it be? We see that the word began to be written down before the mutation occurred, and after it did, the word ultimately came to be spelled with a "v". It is in the context of being between two vowels, thus illustrating that this was more widespread in English during this time period than just a few plurals. –  Kosmonaut Jun 10 '11 at 14:37
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@Stuart: No, [fs] is just as easy to articulate as [vz]. It may not sound or feel as good to you, but it is the same mouth-shape, so I'd wager it's only because [fs] is less common. Besides, you don't have trouble with skiffs, or even knifes the third-person singular of to knife. –  Jon Purdy Jun 10 '11 at 20:17
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@Stuart: No, it's got little or nothing to do with the 's': /fs/ and /vz/ are both natural for English speakers. It's because the 'e' was pronounced in Old and Middle English. –  Colin Fine Jun 12 '11 at 20:38
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