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I was at a museum in London yesterday, and one of the items on exhibit is a document from the eighteenth century. It uses the letter f a lot where s should be used—for example, in Majefty.

Her Majeſties moſt Gracious DECLARATION for the incouragement...

Did the letter f once have the same sound as s today, or were some of those words actually spoken with an f ?

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After a little reading I think this isn't 'Old English', just 'not so modern English'. Can someone more knowledgeable re-title the question? –  Paul Stovell Aug 15 '11 at 11:15
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It's a "long s" or "medial s" and was a change in typography that also occurred in other languages. It's not really a question about English. Also, the wiki page on "long s" probably answers your questions quite satisfactorily. –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 15 '11 at 11:27
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@Paul: If this were Old English, you wouldn't be able to read it without a dictionary (see text samples). In fact, I would say the text in question isn't even Early Modern English. It's just plain Modern English. –  RegDwigнt Aug 15 '11 at 11:28
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I had wondered about this myself. I didn't know there was a name for this type of s, and that it was common in other languages too. How fascinating. –  KitFox Aug 15 '11 at 12:35
    
Note also the date "4. June 1702" in cursive below the title. –  Cerberus Aug 16 '11 at 9:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 45 down vote accepted

In the first place, it’s not f, but long s.

It was just a different way of writing s. It was always pronounced as an s is pronounced; it was never pronounced as an f. Its history explains the letter pretty well. Long s:

The long-s originated at a very early date in cursive Roman scripts, and can be seen in both Old Roman Cursive (1st to 3rd centuries AD) and New Roman Cursive (late 3rd century to 7th century).

It’s no longer used in today’s English. One reason it’s no longer used is because:

“The death knell,” he writes, “was finally sounded on September 10th 1803 when ... The Times newspaper quietly switched to a modern typeface with no long s or old-fashioned ligatures (this was one of several reforms instituted by John Walter the Second, who became joint proprietor and exclusive manager of The Times at the beginning of 1803).”

This may have been due to the fact that:

Long ‘s’ fell out of use in Roman and italic typography well before the middle of the 19th century; in French the change occurred from about 1780 onwards, in English in the decades before and after 1800, and in the United States around 1820. This may have been spurred by the fact that long ‘s’ looks somewhat like ‘f ’ (in both its Roman and italic forms), whereas short ‘s’ did not have the disadvantage of looking like another letter, making it easier to read correctly, especially for people with vision problems.

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What about the pronunciation of a long-s vs. a short-s? Was it similar to the thick vs. thin "s" sounds in Dutch? –  oosterwal Aug 15 '11 at 13:10
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No. The long s was simply the character used to type s, when it did not occur as the last letter of a word. –  RoundTower Aug 15 '11 at 13:27
    
Long s (ſ) was used at the end of a word. Short s (normal s today) elsewhere. I seem to recall seeing ſ once in the middle of a word when it was the end of the first component of a compound word, but I don't know how common that was. –  GEdgar Aug 15 '11 at 14:52
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@GEdgar, looking at the text Paul Stovell posted above, you can see that you have it exactly the wrong way round. However, the rule was not always as clear-cut as that. –  Colin Fine Aug 15 '11 at 16:23
    
@Colin, you are right. –  GEdgar Aug 15 '11 at 17:17

It’s not f  (that is, Unicode codepoint U+0066: LATIN SMALL LETTER F), but rather ſ  (meaning Unicode codepoint U+017F: LATIN SMALL LETTER LONG S).

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