37

While I know how my name is pronounced, I've run into many non-native english speakers who have stumbled over this unique exception to English. Even in the female name, "Stephanie", the ph is pronounced as f.

What is the etymology of "Stephen" and is there any other instance of ph being pronounced as v in either American or British English?

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  • 6
    It doesn't include a "ph", but Siobhan is pronounced "sha-VON". Jan 25, 2011 at 4:36
  • 10
    Siobhán is an Irish name, and should be pronounced shi-vawn. It rhymes with pawn, not with on. English people always get this wrong. (On the BBC Radio 4 soap opera, The Archers, the only people who pronounced Siobhán's name correctly were her husband and the man she was having an affair with. This always amused me.) Pronouncing bh as v is standard in Irish.
    – TRiG
    Jul 3, 2011 at 19:13
  • 11
    @TRiG pawn and on rhyme for me...
    – nohat
    Jul 20, 2011 at 0:54
  • 5
    @TRiG, as an american, 'on' sounds very much like 'awn'... Jul 25, 2011 at 14:03
  • 4
    @KevinWells yes, I know all about it. My comment above was just meant to indicate that saying "it rhymes with pawn, not with on" is basically a meaningless statement to someone with that merger.
    – nohat
    Sep 14, 2016 at 22:24

7 Answers 7

33

The source of Stephen is the Greek name Stephanos. This name was borrowed into English long enough ago that the intervocalic [f] sound was voiced to become [v]. This is a regular sound change that was also responsible for some other f~v alternations in English, such as loaf~loaves. However, in the name Stephen the spelling "ph" remained (or has been restored) due to the influence of the Greek original. In other words, Stephen and Steven are pronounced the same way, but the former has an anachronistic spelling.

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    @JSBangs, the f~v example you mention is a rule though, isn't it? loaf~loaves leaf~leaves elf~elves dwarf~dwarves but leaves oaf~oafs surf~surfs staff~staffs? And what about Stephanie why has the pronunciation or spelling not been changed? Jan 24, 2011 at 16:27
  • 4
    @Stephen: The f~v alternation was a sound change, and words that had already entered English when the sound change occurred exhibit this alternation, while words that entered more recently or which have been regularized don't. It's interesting that you mentioned staff, since that in fact does have an archaic plural staves that alternates, though it's been replaced with the regular staffs in most registers. I suspect that Stephanie doesn't illustrate this alternation because it was borrowed from French at a later date, after the sound change had occurred. Jan 24, 2011 at 16:34
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    @Stephen: in the case of dwarfs vs. dwarves Tolkien forced the issue. The plural of “dwarf” used to be exclusively “dwarfs”, to the point that the copy editor corrected all occurrences of “dwarves” in the original LoTR script and had to change them back at Tolkien’s insistence. You can see the resulting changes in the ngram viewer. Jan 24, 2011 at 18:04
  • 3
    British pronunciation nephew is listed as nev-yoo ( dictionary.reference.com/browse/nephew )
    – Unreason
    May 27, 2011 at 12:04
  • 3
    Isn't of vs off an example of this transition as well? I was taught to pronounce the first one similar to ov.
    – varepsilon
    Apr 12, 2018 at 9:36
14

I always found interesting that both "phial" and "vial" exist in English, having a common origin but different pronunciations. OED lists "vial" as an alteration of "phial"; the "ph" is originally Greek.

Does this count?

1
  • For "phial", Chambers gives only ['faiəl], and Webster's 3rd ['fai(ə)l] (transcribing into IPA). Neither gives any pronunciation with [v], even though Webster's 3rd lists alternative pronunciations for some other words.
    – Rosie F
    Jun 15, 2019 at 6:38
11

Is there any other instance of "ph" being pronounced as "v" in either American or British English?

In British English, nephew can be pronounced nev-yoo.

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  • 4
    Is it local to somewhere? Never heard that in the UK. howjsay.com/index.php?word=nephew also pronounces it with an "f", but dictionaries do list the "v" pronunciation.
    – RomanSt
    Jan 24, 2011 at 21:19
  • @romkyns Yes, it's interesting, and I'm not certain. For what it's worth, Forvo has three pronunciations, and while the British speaker is distinctly f sounding, the New Zealand pronunciation sounds, to my ear, like v. forvo.com/word/nephew/#en
    – ghoppe
    Jan 24, 2011 at 21:31
  • It turns out that nephew is the only word in the OED that has a ph in it but no v, and which is sometimes pronounced with a /v/. It gives both /ˈnɛvjuː/ and /ˈnɛfjuː/. I do not know that I have ever heard it this way.
    – tchrist
    Oct 28, 2012 at 2:45
4

Stephen is of Greek origin (Stephanos). The ph is unusual in its v pronunciation. The only possibility I can think of is that it arrived in English via Spanish, where it is spelt 'Esteban'. The Spanish pronunciation of 'b' is somewhere between English 'V' and 'B'. In Hungarian it is spelt 'Istvan', so there's another possible source.

4
  • Okay, but there's no other place in English where "ph" is pronounced "v" ? I feel sorry trying to explain this to all my non-native english speaking co-workers. Jan 24, 2011 at 16:06
  • Well, most likely your non-native english speaking co-workers will have heard of Stephen King, so you can give that as an example. Jan 24, 2011 at 16:59
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    @Raphael: You're back to the problem of explaining that the famous author "Stephen King", so well known to them, is pronounced "Steven", not "Stephen" as they always thought. :-) Jan 24, 2011 at 17:09
  • @Stephen, just tell them the name is Greek, not English. Jan 25, 2011 at 5:52
4

Born in London, I have always pronounced nephew with a 'v' sound. Locals in Essex (England) also pronounce the village name of Bulphan as 'Bulvan' rather than 'Bulfan', even though the second syllable is derived from the word fen.

0

"STEVEN" is the canon pronunciation because Old English make-shift gender phonetics are applied to the E-PH. However in common rumor, a user of the name may be required to know the two pronunciations presented by text key models in probable instances rendering it differently pronounced than that of the "V" spelling. http://babynames.net/names/stephen

-2

As one bearing the name of Stephen, I have read a little etymology and it seems that many people try to answer the question by pointing to the Greek Stephanos, which is incorrect because the question is asked of English, not of Greek. Was there not a Norman King of England, Stephen, whose court spoke French? Could there be a precedent in old Norman for the use of ph in the name? As well, the biblical saint, and first christian martyr, Saint Stephen, is ALWAYS pronounced the way King Stephen, and Stephen King, are pronounced. Stephen's Green in Dublin and almost all uses of Stephen in Ireland, follow the English standard, not the Scottish (v) usage (like Robert Louis Stevenson). So the pattern of Stephen is historically, biblically, and descriptively pronounced as Steven and not as Stefan, although I grew up with a Polish lad, Stephan, who prounced his name as Stefan. So it all depends on your preferred national standard. I'm sticking with King Stephen and Saint Stephen, thank you very much.

2
  • All of these were named after Saint Stephen. From Wikipedia, "Stephen's name is derived from the Greek language Stephanos, meaning 'crown'." The historical trend goes farther than Saint Stephen, as others noted; it goes back to the Greek language. Nov 16, 2012 at 18:40
  • 1
    The king's French name was Étienne or Estienne. Stephen was the Anglicized form of his name.
    – user32047
    Dec 27, 2012 at 21:29

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