37

While Americans (and possibly others) pronounce this as "loo-tenant", folks from the UK pronounce it as "lef-tenant".

Why?

  • 2
    I'll just note the UK pronunciation you cite is not 100% prevalent in the UK, I've known more than a few Brits that pronounced it the same way Americans do. Maybe that was just RAF folks being corrupted by USAF folks while here in the states, I dunno. – cabbey Feb 11 '11 at 5:39
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    The members of the Army and Royal Air Force say "lef-tenant", but in the Royal Navy that's a solecism ("loo-tenant" there). – Brian Hooper Feb 11 '11 at 7:08
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    @BrianHooper I am not sure that is exactly correct. I recall when joining the Canadian Navy back in the seventies that the pronunciation was more like "le tenant" or "luh tenant", not sure how to write it, and followed Royal Navy usage, so it was essentially a third way to pronounce the word. By the way I was a sub-lieutenant so did pay some attention to how to pronounce and especially how the captain pronounced it... certainly never leftenant or lootenant.... – William Oct 19 '11 at 2:04
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    @BrianHooper Every member of the Royal Navy I've met (a considerable number, from a wide variety of branches) has pronounced it 'lef-tenant'. – dbmag9 Apr 18 '14 at 12:38
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    @dbmag9, I stand corrected. – Brian Hooper Apr 19 '14 at 9:02
20

Etymonline indicates that spelling with lef- dates to the 14th century, but that the origins of that spelling (and presumably its associated pronunciation) are “mysterious”. The word comes originally from Old French, and according to the OED, Old French replaced word- and syllable-final [w] with [f]; for the Modern French word lieu, this is shown by an Old French spelling variant luef. Both forms, whyever they exist, just happened to stick.

  • 7
    It's not just French dialects: consider modern French "neuf" ("nine") < "novem", "neuf" (new) < "novum", "boeuf" ("bull") < "bovem", "naïf" ("naive") < "nativum". – Colin Fine Feb 11 '11 at 13:09
  • It's simply an attempt for English speakers to pronunce French phonemes, I don't believe there's an additional reason. The word appeared in English as "lieutenant", and an alternative "leftenant" was made to stick to the pronunciation. The pronunciation being very difficult for English speaker. The "lefttenant" doesn't exist in French, at least, I didn't find it, I will search further. – Quidam Nov 14 '19 at 17:17
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    Old French is not one language, it's a bunch of dialects. And lieutenant means place keeper (lit. keeping). In Spanish and Portuguese, they dropped the lieu [lugar], and kept teniente and tenente, respectively. I fail to see how that f business survived Middle French...or jumped over the channel when it was an f....? – Lambie Jul 10 '20 at 20:43
2

en.wiktionary.org claims that leftenant is an archaic spelling of lieutenant.

  • It's an achaic spelling in English, but not in French. This spelling was to stick to the pronunciation, and not the opposite, as there is not "lefttenant" in old French. – Quidam Nov 14 '19 at 17:12
2

Lieutenant:

Etymology: The word lieutenant derives from French; the lieu meaning "place" as in a position; and tenant meaning "holding" as in "holding a position"

Pronunciation: Pronunciation of lieutenant is generally split between the forms /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ (About this soundlisten) lef-TEN-ənt and /luːˈtɛnənt/ (About this soundlisten) loo-TEN-ənt, with the former generally associated with the armies of British Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland; and the latter generally associated with anyone from the United States or other Western Hemisphere countries. The early history of the pronunciation is unclear; Middle English spellings suggest that both proununciations may have existed even then. The majority of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources show pronunciations with /v/ or /f/, but Bullokar has /liu/.

The rare Old French variant spelling luef for Modern French lieu ('place') supports the suggestion that a final [u] of the Old French word was in certain environments perceived as an [f]. [Wikipedia]

I assume the 'u' / 'v' from lieu (place) just got devoiced because it precedes the voiceless /t/.

The fact that it's pronounced with an F in BrE means one of the three things as far as I can tell. Either:

  1. In Anglo-Norman or whatever dialect of French lieutenant was borrowed from, they probably pronounced the < v >/ < u > as /v/ in some places and it took the devoicing from the /t/ here (as the 'v' in have gets devoiced when it's followed by to as in hafta).

  2. Or, as orthographic < u > and < v > were often conflated (sometimes without exception), Anglophones for some reason hypercorrected their pronunciation to match the orthography, so: /l(j)ɛu:ˈtɛnənt/ (or /l(j)ɛwˈtɛnənt/) -> /l(j)ɛvˈtɛnənt/ -> /l(j)ɛfˈtɛnənt/.

  3. Or, the Anglophones confused the lieu with the English word leave (or love or live, I don't know) as people often confuse V and W (v and w are allophones in some languages) and got the pronunciation /l(j)ɛvˈtɛnənt/ instead of /l(j)uːˈtɛnənt/ and then later on the /v/ got devoiced to /f/ (as it usually gets devoiced when followed by a voiceless consonant due to voicing assimilation).

After further research, I think the 'v' (which is now F) in lieutenant is epenthetic as in Modern French pouvoir (from pooir).

From Middle French povoir, from Old French povoir, pooir, from early Old French poeir, from Vulgar Latin *potēre (“to be able”), *possō for Classical Latin posse, present active infinitive of possum. The Latin infinitive *potēre was a regularized form from the root potis (“able”) or formed on the basis of the present participle potens. The v is an epenthetic consonant added to avoid hiatus. [Wikitionary]

As for the American pronunciation of lieutenant (without f), I think that's a spelling pronounciation.

Take it with a pinch of salt.

(Here's a good discussion on the topic.)

-1

While it will always remain a mystery, I think that this goes back to the OF pronunciation of "lieu" to sound like "lyeuch". Then "lieutenant" would have the pronunciation of "lyeuchtenant". Later, when the drive by the English to rid the language of french words began, they modified the word to try to match their pronunciation and made it "leftenant". Even later, when the Americans cuddled up to the French during the revolutionary war, their pronunciation changed to follow the french term. I'll bet George Washington used the English term at the beginning.

Of course- this is opinion and I have been wrong before. It was in 1950 I believe...

  • Welcome to EL&U. I encourage you to visit the help center. Speculative answers are generally frowned upon, as this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, and so answers should be definitive. – choster Apr 18 '14 at 14:37
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    Please show me a source for this in and Old French dictionary. The French have said lieu at least back to the Middle Ages.... – Lambie Jul 10 '20 at 21:16
-3

The different pronunciation started sometime after England was first at war with France from 1337 to 1453. The politicians and the public wanted nothing that sounded French. They also changed German Shephard dog to Alsatian.

However, we have been at war with the Dutch and still use some Dutch expressions like Dutch courage, go Dutch, Dutch yaw and Double Dutch.

  • Since the first usage of lieutenant the OED has is in 1377 (after they'd been at war with France for forty years), I'm not sure this explanation holds water. – Peter Shor Feb 3 '15 at 3:13
-5

Lieu from french shows up in English phrases like "in lieu of" meaning "in place of", so lieu means place and lieutenant essentially means placeholder. There is a rarely used word, lief, which I see in old books in phrases like "I'd as lief jump off this wall as ..." and I think it is another spelling and pronunciation of lieu. I think the "lef-tenant" pronunciation comes from that lief which was no doubt interchangeable with lieu at some point in the past.

BTW Canadians technically say lef-tenant though many ordinary folks say it the US way because that's what we hear on TV.

  • 3
    No, "lief" is a different word, akin to "love" (German "Lieb"). – Colin Fine Feb 11 '11 at 13:04
-5

After the post, I will try to research the etymology of 'Lieutenant.' From what I was told (Fact or fiction as it may be), in the early Naval days (circa 1600), the sword of the Commanding Officer designated who was in charge and who was their leader. The Lieutenant always had someone guarding the sword when the Commanding Officer was wearing it. The sword is carried on the left hip. That person stood to the 'left' of the Lieutenant. Therefore, he was called the Left Tenant because he was second in command to the Lieutenant. If the Lieutenant was killed, the Left Tenant took the sword and became the Lieutenant.

  • 1
    You should make the searches before posting. Searches are always better than "from what I was told". You etymology is wrong. – Quidam Nov 14 '19 at 17:09

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