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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.

  • Although you write "keep the f", it is actually the case that countries such as Spain had a spelling reform to change these words to use f instead of the ph they were using up until this point. – Robert Furber Nov 27 '18 at 13:45
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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.

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    +1. But why did the French use "ph" for /f/, if the French language was already using "f" for this phoneme? – user9383 Jun 1 '15 at 20:20
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    @WS2 What about "philosophie", "photographe", "phénomène" etc.? – Robert Furber Nov 27 '18 at 13:37
  • @RobertFurber Quite right - my apologies. – WS2 Nov 27 '18 at 17:12
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There were two p, t, and k sounds in ancient Greek. The softer (aspirated) sounds were transliterated in Latin as ph, th, and ch. Then, in Greek, all three sounds weakened; respectively they sounded like f, th (as in think), and the soft throaty sound in German ich or the x in Spanish Mexico. Neither Greek nor Latin changed the way the sounds were written. More than 1000 years later, English was born and then written down by people trained in Latin; they kept the Latin conventions for transliterating Greek words. You can read a more in-depth explanation about the history of these spellings at tellingvoice.com.

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    Could you provide the IPA symbols for the sounds? – Matt E. Эллен Oct 12 '12 at 8:25
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    If it was like Hindi, the sounds were [p] for π and [pʰ] for φ. This is what the references (such as Wikipedia) I've seen say; I'm not sure how scholars know this, since the earlier pronunciations died out centuries ago. – Peter Shor Oct 12 '12 at 20:26
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The Romans. They translated Greek phi (φ) as "ph" and pronounced it closer to "p" than "f". Native Latin words were spelled with the "f". Ironically, a lot of Latin p-words became f-words (e.g., pedis became "foot").

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  • Ok, yes, Romans...Greeks phi..this does make sense....many thanks. – user6697 Mar 30 '11 at 6:22
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    More accurately, the Greek letter φ was pronounced in Classical times as an aspirated /pͪ/ (a bit like /ph/ in "uphill"), and when the Romans borrowed Greek words with that letter they transcribed it as 'ph'. Subsequently the sound changed in Greek to /f/, and Latin (and other languages which had further borrowed the words from Latin) changed them accordingly. "ph" for /f/ is not just in English - it is found at least in French and German as well, though Spanish (for example) has preferred to respell the words with "f". (It's also independently in Welsh and Irish) – Colin Fine Mar 30 '11 at 11:06
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    Latin pedis did not become English foot. Rather, both pedis and foot are descendants of a common PIE root. The change from *p to *f in the Germanic languages is due to Grimm's Law, which is very different from what happened in Greek/Latin. – JSBձոգչ Mar 30 '11 at 13:09