The Grammarphobia Blog

Why does the “f” in “of” sound like a “v”?

Q: I’m puzzled by something. Why is “of” pronounced UV and not UF?

A: You raise a very interesting question.

First of all, the letter “v” wasn’t used in Old English writing. The letter “f” represented either an “f” or a “v” sound, depending on vocal stresses. 

This fact plays an important part in the history of the word “of.”

“Of” entered English from Germanic sources. It was derived from af  in languages like Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and Gothic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word once had two forms—stressed and unstressed. In primitive Old English, it was spelled differently and pronounced differently depending on where it fell in a sentence.

The unstressed form (of) had a shorter pronunciation and the “f” was pronounced like “v.”

The stressed form (aef) was more drawn out, and the “f” was pronounced like “f.”

The vowel sounds were different, too. The unstressed form sounded more or less like UV and the stressed form like AHF.

The forms did not have different meanings, just different spellings and pronunciations. Soon the aef spelling disappeared, however, and for much of its history, until into the 1600s, this word was spelled “of” in both of its forms. 

Meanwhile, the spelling “off” developed for the stressed form, and eventually “off” became a separate word, with different functions to go along with its different sound.

The OED says “of” and “off” weren’t “fully differentiated” until the 17th century, and “thus of and off now rank as different words.”

One view of all this is that “of” and “off” were once the same word. Today it’s hard to imagine these two words as one with a single meaning, like the original of/aef.

In ancient times, the word’s primary sense was “away” or “away from.” But the original sense of “of” has become obscured over time. Even the OED admits that the history of its meanings is “exceedingly complicated.”

One things hasn’t changed much. Even now, we use different stresses in saying “of” and “off,” as in these underlined phrases: “The roof of the house blew off the house.”

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