In other words, when someone natively speaks a language that doesn't include /f/ or /v/, and they try to pronounce those sounds in English but don't entirely succeed, what sound do they end up producing?

Context: I am writing a story about harpies, whose language is roughly based off of Ancient Greek. (In the story, their language and writing system greatly influenced proto-Greek languages, from Phoenician to Attic.) In Ancient Greek, there is no "f" or "v" sound; those sounds only exist in Modern Greek. I am wondering, when trying to pronounce an English word, what sound are these harpies likely to produce when trying to mimic the /f/ and /v/ sounds, which do not exist in their native language?

Obviously, I don't expect to find native Ancient Greek speakers, but hopefully there are those of you who speak languages with similar phonologies, who are better versed in phonetics than I am, and/or who know more about Ancient and proto-Greek languages than I do.

Thank you in advance!

  • I sometimes hear non-native speakers using 'w' instead of 'v'. – Weather Vane Jun 20 '20 at 8:56
  • @WeatherVane Perhaps they may be native German speakers. In German, 'w' is pronounced like 'v' in English. – auspicious99 Jun 20 '20 at 9:18
  • @auspicious99 native German speakers would say 'f' for 'v', and 'v' for 'w' (not the other way round). They can say 'v' in their native language but it is denoted by a different alphabet letter. The question is about those who can't say 'v' and it is those who I have heard speaking, probably from somewhere in SE Asia or the sub-continent. – Weather Vane Jun 20 '20 at 9:26
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    A better fit with Linguistics.SE? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 '20 at 10:05
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    To figure out how the ancient Greeks would have pronounced the /v/ sound, you would have to look at the transliterations of the Hebrew letter Bet (ב), which can represent both /b/ and /v/. My knowledge of Hebrew and Greek isn't really good enough for me to figure this out easily. At a wild guess, they both might have ended up as beta (Β). – Peter Shor Jun 20 '20 at 17:41

If you look at the way the ancient Greeks spelled Hebrew names from the Bible, it looks like they would have pronounced /f/ as /pʰ/ and /v/ as /b/. Since English doesn't distinguish between /pʰ/ and /p/, the easiest thing would be for you to have the harpies use /p/ for /f/ and /b/ for /v/.

Which sounds you make when you mispronounce a phoneme that isn't in your language depends very much on your native language. For example, the sound of "th" in the, /ð/, tends to be pronounced as /z/ by French speakers, but is quite likely to be pronounced /d/ by German speakers.

You can guess how the Greeks would have pronounced /f/ and /v/ by the way they transcribed biblical names.

Hebrew has both a /f/ and a /p/ sound, and they are transcribed by the Hebrew letter pay (פ) . Today, you add a dot (called a dagesh) to distinguish these pronunciations, but this innovation was added to Hebrew after the Bible was written. The Greeks transliterated the /p/ sound of pay as pi (Π) and the /f/ sound as phi (Φ). For example, the name Potiphar has two pays, and the first one turned into pi and the second into phi.

Similarly, the Hebrew letter bet (ב) can represent both /b/ and /v/. The Greeks transcribed both sounds as a beta (Β); for example Abraham is pronounced with a /v/ in Hebrew, but the Greeks transcribed it with a beta, which is why we pronounce it with a /b/.

  • I agree with the main point of this answer expressed in the first sentence. However, I think the second-to-last is not quite right. In loanwords from Semitic languages, Greek phi was not only used to represent פ in contexts where it would be lenited to a labial fricative, but also in in some cases where the plosive variant would be expected, as in Φαραώ and σάπφειρος. I covered this a little bit in my answer here; it seems like this could have occurred as a result of Hebrew voiceless non-emphatic plosives having some aspiration. – herisson Jun 28 '20 at 3:42
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    (I'm not sure what the distribution is of Greek pi being used to represent פ as in Πετεφρῆς. There are some other examples in this article.) – herisson Jun 28 '20 at 3:44
  • @herisson: Great article! Quick summary on how it's relevant to my answer: the Greeks weren't very consistent in transcribing more modern Herbrew /p/ and /f/ with Π and Φ, respectively. So it's likely the Hebrew pronunciation was erratic back then, but maybe the Greek transcriptions were erratic. But there's lots more interesting stuff in the article about other phonemes, as well. – Peter Shor Jun 28 '20 at 14:19

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