A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing how every "rule" of English spelling or pronunciation has an exception, and every exception has an exception as well. Then I brought up the rule of a ph cluster equaling an f sound (as in phonetic, elephant, morph, etc.) as a pronunciation rule that didn't have any exceptions I could think of. Is this a true hard-and-fast rule or does it have some exceptions as well? I'm not counting abbreviations such as pH scale.

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    How about aphelion (one of the accepted pronunciations, anyway)? Of course, there's always uphold as well. – Robusto Apr 6 '15 at 22:29
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    Your rule should probably mention morpheme boundaries. – user28567 Apr 6 '15 at 22:43
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    @lpodman: I always thought "phish" was a homophone of "fish". Is it not? – herisson Apr 7 '15 at 0:48
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a pointless "list" question – FumbleFingers Apr 7 '15 at 1:50
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    I wasn't asking for a list; I was just asking if there were any exceptions. – Nicole Apr 7 '15 at 4:08

The exceptions come in two categories:

  • Greek words that were originally pronounced with an "f" — diphtheria, diphthong, ophthalmology, phthisis — but have come to be pronounced with a "p" by no process I understand.
  • Compound words — uphold, saphead, peephole — that are just a word ending in "p" run up against a word beginning with an "h".

Neither of those really feel like exceptions: mispronunciations that have become accepted and two words being treated as one.

Then there is aphelion. Arguably, that's a compound word and a mistake. By analogy with apogee and apastron, it should be apohelion: "apo" ("from") + "helion" ("sun").

Several people brought up "Stephen", which is often pronounced like "Steven". Eh, I think we should play with Scrabble rules: no proper names.

Finally, there is an example that will really blow your minds: phthalate. The ph- is silent.

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    Why do you say aphelion is a mistake? It looks like a properly formed Greek word, even if the Greeks did not use it? The -o should be elided before a vowel, and hêlion begins with a vowel (the h sound is not a consonant in classical Greek). – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 7 '15 at 2:42
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    @Malvolio: the p got aspirated before a rough-breathed vowel, turning it into the single sound "ph". – herisson Apr 7 '15 at 4:32
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    @Cerberus Within Greek itself, though, that would have given αφηλιον, which would not give English ap + helion, but afelion; so it's a ‘mistake’ in that sense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 7 '15 at 13:03
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    Because ph followed by th is hard to say. Phenolphthalein survives though. – OrangeDog Apr 7 '15 at 17:04
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    I say phthalate like "fthalate". – Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 8 '15 at 8:10

Also :

  • flophouse
  • loophole
  • peephole
  • uphill

and Stephen.

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    don't forget haphazard – Gabriel C. Drummond-Cole Apr 7 '15 at 1:24
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    I like how "loophole" exploits the loophole that the "ph" doesn't need to be part of the same syllable. – Justin Apr 7 '15 at 5:41
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    Loophole indeed – Derek 朕會功夫 Apr 7 '15 at 9:11
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    But I guess it's possible to pronounce "fth". Ostensively one has to, in "fifth" and "twelfth". Although I suspect that in AmE the "f" is reduced, if not elided, in those two. – Brian Hitchcock Apr 7 '15 at 9:51
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    Also "hiphop"~~ – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 7 '15 at 17:39

Shepherd -- it's technically a compound word, but a pretty old one.

  • is shepherd not pronounced as sheferd? – Usman Mar 2 '16 at 14:03
  • @Usman: it's pronounced as "SHEP-erd," since it means "sheep herd." – herisson Mar 2 '16 at 14:51
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    My whole life has been a lie! :P – Usman Mar 2 '16 at 15:00

diphtheria -- and then any compound word like uphold or saphead.

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    Although, words like "diphtheria" and "diphthong" are commonly heard with either /p/ or /f/, so although they can be pronounced with /p/, following the rule ph = /f/ will also yield a valid pronunciation. – herisson Apr 6 '15 at 22:36
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    My first thought was, well, some people are just pronouncing "diphtheria" and "diphthong" wrong, in slavish adherence to an inapplicable "rule". Turns out, no. They derive from διφθέρα ("leather", from the tough membrane that can form in the throat of a diphtheria sufferer) and δίφθογγος ("two sounds"). δίφ is, and is pronounced, "dif". The more you know. – Malvolio Apr 6 '15 at 23:39
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    Note that although modern Greek pronounces phi as /f/, classical Greek pronounced it as an aspirated /p/. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phi. – Keith Apr 7 '15 at 0:10
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    Weird. I've never heard anyone pronounce the ph in diphtheria, diphthong, or ophthalmology as a /p/. Is it a regional thing to mispronounce those? I've lived in the American Midwest, Northeast, and Northwest. – dg99 Apr 7 '15 at 21:46
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    @dg99 You've never heard anyone say "Op"thalmologist before? That's the only pronunciation I've ever heard. – TylerH Apr 8 '15 at 14:02

The following words come to mind:

  • "Stephen" - A masculine given name pronounced /ˈstiːvən/. e.g. Stephen Crane, the writer; Stephen of Blois, king of England.
  • "Stephens City" - A small town in Virginia, USA, pronounced /ˈstiːvənz/

I might add words such as "uphold" (a junction of two words), "nephew" (which can be pronounced /'ne.viu/ in the U.K.), and ophthalmic, ophthalmology, etc, (which can be pronounced with an "f" sound too.) I don't think these would answer the OP, though.

EDIT - While I was writing my answer, the word "Stephen" was added to one of the answers.

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    That's interesting about nephew. I've never heard it pronounced with any other way than ne-(ˌ)fyü. – Nicole Apr 7 '15 at 0:53
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    Perhaps it's a regional pronounciation, by I've always heard Stephen pronounced with much more of an 'f' sound than Steven with a 'v'. – jamesqf Apr 7 '15 at 3:12
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    @jamesqf: I've never heard Stephen pronounced with an 'f' and I'm a native English speaker who's been to most English speaking countries. Can you find us a YouTube like or something? – hippietrail Apr 7 '15 at 14:52
  • @hippietrail: Sorry, but I don't do YouTube, or video of any sort, really, and in fact don't even have speakers on my computers. – jamesqf Apr 7 '15 at 18:29
  • Yeah and I've always heard James pronounced as if the m was an n... – pazzo Apr 8 '15 at 0:16

Ones that haven't been mentioned:

  • upholstery
  • upheld
  • upheaval

I took this further and ran the following fairly simple command in Linux that tries to solve this problem, I've commented each part of the command on the right in the interest of readability:

look . | grep ph |         # List words and filter out ones with ph.
while read word ; do       # Set variable $word to each word.
   espeak -qx "$word" |    # Print phonetic pronounciation of the word.
      grep -q f ||         # If it doesn't have an f sound in it, 
         echo "$word"      # then print the word.
  • alphol
  • Alphonist
  • Alphonse
  • Alphonsine
  • Alphonsism
  • Alphonso
  • alphorn
  • alphos
  • alphosis
  • archshepherd
  • creephole
  • cupholder
  • haphazard
  • haphazardly
  • haphazardness
  • lamphole
  • loophole
  • nonupholstered
  • nympholepsia
  • nympholepsy
  • nympholept
  • nympholeptic
  • overshepherd
  • peephole
  • sheepherder
  • sheepherding
  • shepherd
  • shepherdage
  • shepherddom
  • shepherdess
  • shepherdhood
  • Shepherdia
  • shepherdish
  • shepherdism
  • shepherdize
  • shepherdless
  • shepherdlike
  • shepherdling
  • shepherdly
  • shepherdry
  • shepherdry
  • Stephen
  • sulpholeate
  • sulpholeic
  • taphole
  • Theraphosa
  • theraphose
  • theraphosid
  • Theraphosidae
  • theraphosoid
  • traphole
  • undershepherd
  • unshepherded
  • unshepherding
  • unupholstered
  • uphand
  • uphang
  • upharbor
  • upharrow
  • uphasp
  • upheal
  • upheap
  • uphearted
  • upheaval
  • upheavalist
  • upheave
  • upheaven
  • upheld
  • uphelm
  • uphelya
  • upher
  • uphill
  • uphillward
  • uphoard
  • uphoist
  • uphold
  • upholden
  • upholder
  • upholster
  • upholstered
  • upholsterer
  • upholsteress
  • upholsterous
  • upholstery
  • upholsterydom
  • upholstress
  • uphung
  • uphurl

Note that these results aren't perfect, its based on the phonetic information that the espeak program contains and also some slightly flawed logic that excludes words that have an 'f' in them. Like flophouse. I'd have to write a more sophisticated program to get better results.

Another interesting thing you can do is calculate is the number of ph words overall vs. the list above. There are 12,148 words in the dictionary I'm using with 'ph' in them and there are 87 words above. So only about 0.72% of ph words are not pronounced with an 'f' sound.

  • Cupholder... the answer to the OP's question is "yes, many." – keshlam Apr 7 '15 at 16:16
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    I don't think this worked very well. Many of these words DO have an f sound in them! Eg. Alphonse. Also do compound words really count? – JamesRyan Apr 8 '15 at 16:22
  • @JamesRyan Yes like I said, this isn't perfect, but it shows that there is potential there with additional work. Its also based on the phonetic information used by the espeak program, which could be incorrect. – deltaray Apr 8 '15 at 17:36
  • This is a website dedicated to the English language, and not about computer language or artificial intelligence. If the OP is asking for exceptions, you shouldn't include words where ph IS pronounced f, nor every imaginable variant of shepherd. Many of those "up" compounds are either archaic, rare or non-existent e.g. uphang, upharbour and upharrow – Mari-Lou A Apr 9 '15 at 1:32
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    @Mari-LouA O my bad I didn't realise that there weren't problems to be solved in english language such that a computer couldn't help out – deltaray Apr 10 '15 at 13:38

One more:
Haphazard: lacking any obvious principle of organization.

  • Haphazard was the first such word that came to my mind. – Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 8 '15 at 8:43

Phthisis /'θaɪsɪs, 'taisɪs/ and derivative phthisic /'θɪzɪk,'tɪzɪk/.

But British dictionaries (apparently somewhat grudgingly) license /'(f)θaɪsɪs/, /'(f)θɪzɪk/ as well.

  • Another with a silent "ph" is phthalate. – Excellll Apr 7 '15 at 20:18

How about the confusing 'Phenolphthalein' where the first Ph is pronounced as an 'f' but not the second. (pronounced: Fenolthaleen). Pretty much a go to chemical in any laboratory....

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    As a side note, there is the irony that this is a chemical used to measure pH (acidity) in chemistry – James Upton Apr 8 '15 at 19:49

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