39

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

Why?

9
  • 3
    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
  • 4
    The members of the Army and Royal Air Force say "lef-tenant", but in the Royal Navy that's a solecism ("loo-tenant" there). Feb 11 '11 at 7:08
  • 3
    @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
  • 2
    @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
  • 1
    @dbmag9, I stand corrected. Apr 19 '14 at 9:02
21

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.

4
  • 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
  • 2
    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
  • Maybe we should defer to how Patrick Stewart in his role as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek Next Generation pronounces it. In his world the word is pronounced li-you-tenant, combining the correct pronunciation of the word ‘lieu’ with ‘tenant’
    – Cass Lopez
    Jul 6 at 22:12
4

'Lieutenant' comes from French lieu ('place') and tenant ('holding'). Some sources claim that 'lieutenant' had alternative spellings such as leftenant, leftenaunt, lieftenant, lieftenaunt etc., and that the ModE pronunciation with /f/ (BrE mostly) is a holdover from those spellings.

I thought the pronunciation with /f/ arose from the 'minim confusion'; in Middle English, both v and u were used interchangeably. According to Lexico, "the u at the end of Old French lieu was read and pronounced as a v, and the v later became an f". I can see how the v became [f] (see 'assimilation') so it sounds plausible to me. However, according to Etymonline, the OED rejects that theory.

The ModE pronunciation with /f/ means one of the following things:

  1. The speakers of the French dialect lieutenant was borrowed from probably pronounced the ⟨u⟩ as [v] in some places and it took the devoicing from the following /t/ (cf. 'hafta' from have to)

  2. Or, as orthographic ⟨u⟩ and ⟨v⟩ were often used interchangeably, Anglophones for some reason hypercorrected their pronunciation to match the orthography, so: /l(j)ɛu:ˈtenənt/ (or /l(j)ewˈtɛnənt/) → /l(j)evˈtɛnənt/ (hypercorrection) → Assimilation → /l(j)efˈtɛnənt/.

  3. Or, the Anglophones confused the lieu with the English word leave (live) as and got the pronunciation /l(j)evˈtɛnənt/ instead of /l(j)uːˈtɛnənt/ and then later on the /v/ got devoiced to /f/

  4. Or, the pronunciation with /f/ is a holdover from one of the spellings with an orthographic f

  5. Or, the /v/ was epenthetic (cf. Modern French pouvoir from pooir). This can be confirmed at Wikitionary. But it seems less likely.


According to More Word Histories and Mysteries: From Aardvark to Zombie (American Heritage Dictionary), the origin of the pronunciation with /f/ “is not known with any certainty, but similar pronunciations are attested in Middle English times by such spellings as leuftenant, luffetenand, and levetenaunt”. Note the spelling with f and v.

The Old French word lieu had a rare variant form luef, and a form of Old French lieutenant using this rare form rather than lieu may have been picked up by Middle English speakers. In addition, the Old French pronunciation of the word lieu was something like (lyĕw), although this has developed into (lyœ) in Modern French. It is possible that Middle English speakers may have heard the final (w) of this word [...] as a (v) or (f) [...].

Both [v] (also [f]) and [w] are ‘labial sounds’—that is, made with the lips. So it's reasonable to say Middle English speakers confused both [v] and [w].

The quoted entry goes on to say that:

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that use of the Middle English forms with f may also have been encouraged by an association of the first element [lieu] with other English words, such as the noun leave—a lieutenant being an officer who substitutes for another who is on leave or perhaps one who has the superior officer’s leave to take command when he is absent or otherwise unable to fulfill his functions.


As for the AmE pronunciation, John Algeo in The Origins and Development of the English Language says that [lutenənt] was recommended by Noah Webster in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). It thus seems to be a spelling pronunciation.

2

Wikitionary claims that leftenant is an archaic spelling of lieutenant.

1
  • 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
0

My copy of the OED says:

The origin of the beta type of forms (which survives in the usual British proununciation, though the spelling represents the alpha type) is difficult to explain. The hypothesis of a mere misinterpretation of the graphic form (u read as v), at first sight plausible, does not accord with the facts. in view of the rare OF. form luef for lieu (with which cf. esp. the fifth c. Sc. forms luf-, lufftenand above) it seems likely that the labial glide at the end of OF. lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by Englishmen as a v or f. Possibly some of the forms may be due to association with LEAVE sb. or LIEF a.

In 1793 Walker gives the actual pronunciations as (lev- liv-tenant), but expresses the hope that ' the regular sound, lewtenant' will in time become current. In England this pronunciation (lju:'tenent) is almost unknown. A newspaper quot. of 1893 in Func's standard Dictionary says that (lef'tenent) is in the U.S. 'almost confined to the retired list of the navy'.

It's apparent from the examples of usage given that a mixture was in use, e.g. 1375 "lutenand" and "That..luf-tenand Was of to the king of Yngland", 1387 "leeftenaunt".

So it's clear variants of both were in use in England in the 14th century.

As to why present day usage is as it is: People can be contrary. It's possible the US adopted "Loo" because and only because the Brits said "Lef" -- or vice-versa. But it seems the answer is not known by the best scholars Oxford can produce.

-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...

2
  • 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
  • 1
    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.

1
  • 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. 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.

1
  • 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
  • 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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