F: The flawed, filthy fricative
As qualified linguists, we understand and relish the importance of the mechanisms behind what we read, write and hear. Having expert knowledge of our own language, including the history of our alphabet, ensures the quality of our expert translation and interpreting provision. Have you ever wondered why we write as we do? In this blog, we delve into the history of the letter F.
F is an underestimated letter. Now relegated to the realms of obscenity (the f word) and failure (an F grade), the sound it symbolises ([f]) was once denounced by Cicero as the “unsweetest” (insuavissima) in the alphabet and not worthy of its own letter.
F, in its cardinal form, is an unvoiced labio-dental fricative: unvoiced meaning one’s vocal chords do not vibrate, labio-dental meaning involving the lips and teeth, and fricative meaning a turbulent air flow through the mouth causing sound by friction. It is produced by pushing air between the upper teeth and lower lip. Try something: place your hand under your chin, and make an [f] sound. Without stopping, change to a [v] sound – you will then feel a vibration under your chin as your vocal chords engage. [v] is the voiced phonetic counterpart of [f].
F can also be also be viewed as a symbol of uneducated-ness. In some dialects of English and also in children up to the age of five, the [th] sound in think and thin is pronounced with an [f]. This [th] is the unvoiced dental fricative: similar to [f] except produced by the tip of the tongue and the upper teeth. This is th-fronting, and despite extensive internet searching I cannot find a definitive answer to this phenomenon. It seems that because [th] simply requires more movement in the mouth than [f], young children have not strengthened those muscles yet and some dialects have seen it as a redundancy and discarded it.
In the original Phonetian alphabet and later in the adopted Greek and Etruscan alphabets in Greece and Italy respectively, F (then called waw) denoted the [w] sound. When the alphabet was taken up by the Romans the letter was reassigned to the [f] sound, and U was given the secondary role of representing [w]. Many Latin words began with F and so this was very much needed.
When the Roman alphabet came into Old English in around 600 C.E., F covered both the [f] and [v] sounds, for example lufu (‘love’), thought to have been pronounced “luh-vuh”. This marked a departure from Latin, in which the V sound was represented by U. Poor overburdened U in Latin eventually had enough of carrying three sounds, sparking a variant letter: V. This letter crept into English in the late middle ages but remnants of this shared past can be seen today in words such as of – spelt with F but pronounced as [v], and irregular plural patterns such as knife – knives, wife – wives.
F is still changing: here in Wales, Welsh uses an adapted form of the Roman alphabet containing 20 original letters and 8 digraphs (CH, DD, FF, LL, NG, PH, RH, TH) indicating sounds not present in English. In Welsh, FF denotes the F sound and the single denotes the V sound. This knowledge is vital to language professionals, especially with regard to pronunciation in the case of interpreting. This is why our linguists are subject to a stringent screening process before and whilst they work with us. This ensures that we can provide our customers with expert language services.
I personally am very fond of the letter F: its whispering, whooshing sound is light on the ears and lends itself greatly to alliteration in literature. It’s also incredibly easy for children to produce and so is often one of the first letters to be learnt, recognised and written. We love you F!