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The etymologies of "sneeze" and "snore" suggest that they were once pronounced with /f/. Here is what Wiktionary (from which all the following information also comes) says:

  • From Middle English snesen (“to sneeze”), alteration of earlier fnesen (“to sneeze”), from Old English fnēosan (“to snort, sneeze”)

In Old English, it was fnēosan and Wiktionary also lists its pronunciation: /ˈfne͜oː.sɑn/, [ˈfne͜oː.zɑn] which also has /f/.

In Middle English, it was /ˈsneːzən/. Something happened in between Old and Middle English that changed the /f/ to /s/.

Snore

Was there a change from /f/ to /s/? Why did the /f/ change to /s/? I mean, there are a lot of sound changes in the history of English but this is kind of unusual.

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    fn is more unwieldy than sn. It takes more articulatory effort. I don't do historical linguistics, but things tend to evolve toward what is simpler to say, I'd warrant.
    – Lambie
    Nov 11 '20 at 19:43
  • Fnore is quite onomatopœic though, I rather like it! (In BrE anyway. Unless AmE speakers also snore in AmE..!)
    – OJFord
    Nov 13 '20 at 21:54
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Edwin Ashworth's answer is basically right, but I'm going to shed some light on its linguistics.

Every language has a unique set of rules that govern the permissible sequences of sounds (which sounds are allowed to make a consonant cluster i.e. licit and illicit sequences of sounds). A sequence that is possible in one language may not be allowed in another, for instance, the cluster [pn-] is allowed in Greek, but not in English therefore the ‹p› in the word pneumonia is silent in English, but pronounced in Greek. These specific rules are called phonotactics.

In simple words, phonotactics studies what sounds go together, and where can they be found. I have explained English Phonotactics in an answer to your previous question.

Over time, a language may undergo phonotactic variation and change. For example, the letter K in the word know wasn't silent until Modern English (it was pronounced in Middle English and Old English). The letter K went silent probably because it was awkward for Modern English speakers to pronounce a nasal (/m n ŋ/) right after a plosive (/p t k b d g/) in the same syllable. The plosive is therefore silent in words like pneumonia, know, gnome etc.


The tautosyllabic cluster (within the same syllable) /fn-/ is ill-formed in Modern English. The same thing might have happened to it. It might have become 'awkward to pronounce' and English speakers either dropped the /f/ or changed it to /s/.


According to The Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics by Merja Kytö, Päivi Pahta:

Historical changes in phonotactics are documented for English. For instance, the sequence /fn-/ was found in Old English in words like fnēosan ‘sneeze; gasp’, fnær(ett)an ‘snore’ (Lutz 1991: 234) but was later lost either by a shift of /f-/ to /s-/ or due to replacement by another word, e.g. fnēosan ‘gasp’→Old Norse gasp or Anglo-Norman pant(Lutz 1991: 236).

Though it doesn't explain why the /f/ became /s/.


Also from Duisburg-Essen's website:

The set of permissible combinations has varied over the history of English, either by elements being lost, cf. /x/ and /ɣ/ above, or by the simplification or alteration of cluster types. In Old English /h/ and /w/ could occur before /r/ and /l/ as in hlaf /hl-/ ‘loaf’ or writan /wr-/ ‘write’; /h/ could also occur before /n/ as in hnutu /hn-/ ‘nut’ Such clusters were simplified during Middle English and only the second element of each cluster prevailed. Initial clusters like /fn-/ in fneosan ‘sneeze’ were changed to /sn-/. The combinations /gn-/ and /kn-/, as in gnagan ‘gnaw’ and cnēo ‘knee’ respectively, seem to have survived well into the Middle English period.


According to Phonotactics of consonant clusters in the history of English by Katarzyna Dziubalska-Kołaczyk, /fn-/ lost the /f/ and was replaced by /s/ in some words e.g. fnēosan > sneeze.

She further says:

Apart from being replaced by /sn-/, /fn-/ also changed into /g-/, e.g. fnasten > gasp.
[...] /fn-/ → /n-/ (→/sn-/)

And,

"Fricative + nasal" belongs to the medial cluster space, so the change from /fn-/ to /sn-/ does not essentially improve the cluster, although /s/ is stronger than /f/ and as such improves the perceptual distance between C1 and C2. The change to a single consonant is a change to CV.


Another interesting explanation of /f/ to /s/ shift can be found in For the Love of Language: An Introduction to Linguistics by Kate Burridge, Tonya N. Stebbins (p136). They propose the idea of phonaesthemes. They claim that the change from /fn-/ to /sn-/ is because there weren't many fn- words left in English* and there were so many words with the phonaestheme sn-. The phonaestheme sn- is often found in words dealing with the nose: snore, snorkel, sniff, sniffle, snuffle, snuff, snivel, snout, snoot, snub, snot, snob, snotty, sneer, sneeze, snoop. The fact that so many sn- words had something to do with 'nose' eliminated fn- and made sneeze a natural fit.

        * Both *fnast and *fnese are also labelled 'obsolete' in the OED [Consonant Change in English Worldwide]



Now there's a concept of Minimal Sonority Distance for onset clusters. I have explained sonority in this answer.

Minimal Sonority Distance:
Sounds of a language are divided into several degrees on a scale according to their sonority. In English, four degrees have been proposed for glides and other consonants.

Sonority scale of English consonants and glides:

  • Glides [j w] -> 4
  • Liquids [l ɹ] -> 3
  • Nasals [m n] -> 2
  • Obstruents [f t k] -> 1

There is a requirement on the Minimal Sonority Distance (MSD) between the two sounds in an onset cluster. In English the MSD is assumed to be 2 i.e. the sonority of the second sound must be at least two degrees higher than that of the first.

For instance, the sonority of [n] is 2 and that of [f] is 1 -> 2 - 1 = 1 while the required MSD is 2, so the cluster [fn-] is ill-formed and no Modern English word starts with [fn-].

Now for the cluster [fl-] (as in fly): the sonority of [l] is 3 and that of [f] is 1 -> 3 - 1 = 2, it conforms to MSD, therefore the cluster [fl-] is well-formed.

[sn-] is an exception to MSD. Here's a whole paper on the unusual behaviour of /s/.

         [Simplified from Two Theories of Onset Clusters by San Duanmu]


There are many other exceptions, however. (See Two Theories of Onset Clusters by San Duanmu for exceptions and their solutions).

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    I’m curious about the purported derivation of gasp from Middle English fnasten. As I’ve understood it (and as listed in the Wiktipnary entry for gasp), the Middle English was replaced by a Norse-derived term, compare Icelandic geispa. Nov 12 '20 at 9:23
  • Your MSD theory is wrong about [sn-], isn't it? Which is a shame, because [sn-] is precisely what you are trying to explain.
    – TonyK
    Nov 12 '20 at 11:39
  • @TonyK: [sn-] violates MSD (it's an exception, as always). Clusters with /s/ often violate phonological processes, for example, clusters of /s/ and plosives violate Sonority Sequencing Principle. Nov 12 '20 at 11:57
  • "an initial [s], and sometimes [ʃ], is allowed to precede almost any consonant, regardless of the sonority distance or places of articulation.For example, [st-] is good even though the MSD is 0." [Two Theories of Onset Clusters] Nov 12 '20 at 12:16
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Word Histories contains:

The verb fnese having gone out of use early in the 15th century, its place was mainly supplied by neeze, meaning to sneeze, first recorded around 1325. The adoption of sneeze was probably assisted by its phonetic appropriateness, that is to say, it may have been felt as a strengthened form of neeze. ... Neese/neeze is still found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Northern England. [adapted]

This seems to imply a movement involving first an eliding of the awkward f, and a later addition of the s in line with say snore. Apparently, AHD 3rd edition espouses this etymology.

.......

But Word Histories also contains:

The verb sneeze is an alteration of fnese due to misreading or misprinting it as ſnese (= snese) after the initial consonant cluster fn- had become unfamiliar.

For instance, in William Caxton’s 1483 edition of The festyuall, by the Augustinian canon regular John Mirk (floruit late 14th-early 15th centuries), the spelling is fnese, whereas it is snese in the 1508 edition by Wynkyn de Worde (here, the verb means to snort)....

This implies a single-step switch in pronunciation. A mumpsimus ... but an explanation AHD3 considers a folk etymology.

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    You're quite right. It's basically because of English Phonotactics Constraints; the cluster /fn-/ is forbidden. Have a look at [The Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics by Merja Kytö, Päivi Pahta]: "Historical changes in phonotactics are documented for English. For instance, the sequence /fn-/ was found in Old English in words like 'fnēosan' ‘sneeze; gasp’, 'fnær(ett)an' "snore" (Lutz 1991: 234) but was later lost either by a shift of /f-/ to /s-/ or due to replacement by another word, e.g.'fnēosan' ‘gasp’→Old Norse 'gasp' or Anglo-Norman 'pant' (Lutz 1991: 236)" Nov 11 '20 at 16:57
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    @DecapitatedSoul Also in fnast < Old English fnǽst strong masculine, < root of Old Norse fnasa, fnása to snort, breathe hard. During the OE/ON contact period, such borrowings were common because Old Norse — and ancestral Proto-Germanic in general — very much allowed tautosyllabic /fn/ clusters at the onset, something which is no longer permissible in Modern English.
    – tchrist
    Nov 11 '20 at 17:11
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    This might be half true. In Dutch, to sneeze is niezen. sneeze and neeze may have competed for a while. Nov 12 '20 at 9:54
  • When two opposing views are posted, 'This might be half true' isn't helpful. Nov 12 '20 at 14:07
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The OED gives

sneeze (v.)

Etymology: apparently an alteration of fnese v., due to misreading or misprinting it as ‘ſnese’, [edit: ſ = the "long" letter 's'] after the initial combination fn- had become unfamiliar.

Fnese had apparently gone out of use early in the 15th cent., its place being mainly supplied by nese neeze v. The adoption of sneeze was probably assisted by its phonetic appropriateness; it may have been felt as a strengthened form of neeze.

In the following places where sn- is printed in modern editions the correct reading is fn-: Trevisa Higden (Rolls) V. 389; [etc.]

1495 Trevisa's Bartholomeus De Proprietatibus Rerum (de Worde) xvii. xxxviii. 625 Yf it [sc. cummin] is..blowen in to the nosethrilles,..it makith a man snese [Bodl. MS. fnese].

Interestingly, the OED does not give the same etymology for "snore", which, according to it, seems to always have been "snore".

The Old English Translator gives

fnora (n.) weak 1. a sneeze 2. sneezing

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It was still pronounced as 's', but 's' used to be written down as 'f'.

Similar to when you see 'ye olde' - a 'y' was pronounced as what we now write as 'th'.

So it was a written change rather than a sound change.

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    No. You're confusing the 'long s' with a true f. There really was an f in fnesen. Probably others confusing f and long s [Logophilus] brought about this mumpsimus. Complete with change in pronunciation. Nov 11 '20 at 15:26
  • There were many apparent spelling issues with the long s and thorn letters, but this doesn’t seem related.
    – StephenS
    Nov 11 '20 at 15:47
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    F and S are two different letters, and anyone who can read older English writing or print would have been able to tell them apart, as F has a cross bar and long S doesn’t. This doesn’t explain why Chaucer (for example) would write “He slepeth, and he fnorteth”, one word with S, one word with F. (If you look elsewhere, you will be able to find that he also wrote words such as “snowes” with an S.)
    – Laurel
    Nov 11 '20 at 16:11
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    The word fnesen was spelled fnesen not ſnesen. Nov 11 '20 at 16:13
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    Are you saying that the evidence provided by Edwin Ashworth and Decapitated Soul in support of the pronunciation with /f/ is wrong? And the pronunciations recorded in Wikitionary are also incorrect? Can you back your answer up with some evidence please?
    – user387044
    Nov 12 '20 at 10:25

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