English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing


Q: As a mathematician, I’m bothered by the inefficiency of transliterating the Greek letter ϕ as “ph.” Since it’s one letter in Greek, and we have “f,” which makes the same sound, why do we use two letters for it?

A: The letter ϕ (phi) in ancient Greek, spelled “ph” in many English words of Greek origin, didn’t originally have an “f” sound.

The ϕ sounded like the aspirated “p” in “pot,” as opposed to the ancient Greek π (pi), which sounded like the unaspirated “p” in “spot.” (An aspirated letter is pronounced with the sound of a breath.)

When the ancient Romans borrowed words from Greek, they transliterated the ϕ with the digraph ph to differentiate it from the unaspirated p in Latin. (A digraph is a pair of letters representing one sound.)

However, the pronunciations of both the Greek ϕ and the Latin ph evolved during the first few centuries AD and came to sound like the English fricative “f.” (A fricative is a consonant produced by the friction of forcing air through a narrow space.)

In Vox Graeca (1968), a guide to ancient Greek pronunciation, the Cambridge philologist W. Sidney Allen says “the first clear evidence for a fricative pronunciation of ϕ comes from 1 c. A.D. in Pompeiian spellings such as Dafne ( = Δάφνη).” He adds that “from the 2 c. A.D. the representation of ϕ by Latin f becomes common.”

In Old English, spoken from roughly the mid-5th century to the late 11th, the “ph” digraph in words of Greek origin that the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin was sometimes transliterated as f and sometimes as ph.

In an anonymous Old English version of a Latin history, for example, “philosopher” is filosofum in one place and  philosophe in another:

  • “Gesetton him to ladteowe Demoste[n]on þone filosofum” (“They appointed as their leader Demosthenes the philosopher”).
  • “Philippus … wæs Thebanum to gisle geseald, Paminunde, þæm strongan cyninge & þæm gelæredestan philosophe” (“Philip … was given as a hostage to the Theban Paminunde, that strong king and learned philosopher”).

The passages are from the Old English Orosius, a loose translation in the late 9th or early 10th century of Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”), a 5th-century chronicle by Paulus Orosius. Modern scholars doubt an attribution of the translation to King Ælfred.

The linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo say Old English had “somewhat more than 500 in all” loanwords from Latin, including those of Greek origin. Some loanwords came directly from Latin and others indirectly from Celtic or Germanic terms. (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed., 1993.)

However, the majority of Greek words in English appeared after the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the adoption of Anglo-Norman as the language of the aristocracy in England.

“From the Middle English period on, Latin and French are the immediate sources of most loanwords ultimately Greek,” Pyles and Algeo write.

In Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450), the “f” sound in words of Greek origin was sometimes represented with an “f” and sometimes with a “ph” digraph. So “philosopher” was spelled variously felesophre, filosofre, filosophre, fylosofre, phelesophrephilesofre, philisofre, and so on. Yes, spelling was a mess in Middle English.

In the late 15th century, as Middle English was giving way to early Modern English, the printing press arrived in England and helped standardize spelling, including the use of “ph” for the “f” sound in words from Greek.

As it turns out, some Romance languages derived from Latin (such as Spanish and Italian) preferred “f” in these words, while  others (notably French) chose “ph.”

Getting back to your question, the use of the “ph” digraph here may be less efficient than using “f,” but we find it more interesting. The usage preserves a fascinating chapter in the history of English.

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

‘Got a screwdriver?’ … ‘I do.’

Q: If I ask a question like “Have you got a screwdriver?” and someone answers, “I do,” it sets my teeth on edge. I extrapolate that to mean “I do got.” Is that answer incorrect, or is it just me?

A: The use of “I do” in reply to “have you got” is a normal and correct construction in English. There is no “rule” against this common usage.

What’s thrown you off is the idiomatic verb construction “have got.” Both the Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say “have got” here means “have” (in the sense of own or possess). Oxford calls it a “specialized” usage while the Cambridge Grammar calls it an informal idiom.

So in the type of question you mention, “have got” and “have” are interchangeable. And whether it’s worded “Have you got a screwdriver?” or “Do you have a screwdriver?” the question has several grammatically correct replies, including (1) “Yes I have” and (2) “Yes I do.”

Both of those are elliptical replies, in which the verb is stranded at the end. They might be expanded as “Yes I have [or have got] a screwdriver” and “Yes I do have a screwdriver.”

So as you can see, the “do” in reply #2 is elliptical for “do have,” not “do got.” As the Cambridge Grammar explains, the “got” in the idiomatic “have got” cannot be stranded at the end of a sentence. This means that in an elliptical construction with a verb at the end, an auxiliary like “have” or “do” is used.

Keep in mind that “have you got” is an idiom to begin with, so it’s not unexpected that the common reply—“Yes I do,” or “No I don’t”—should be idiomatic too.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that in answer to a “have you got” question, the “do” reply is a familiar feature of both British and American English. Fowler’s, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, offers this analysis:

“Question: Have you got a spare room? Answer: Yes, we do. This apparently illogical use of do, replacing have as the auxiliary verb, arises because the question implicitly being answered is ‘Do you have a spare room?’ It is a common pattern in AmE and causes less surprise to British visitors than formerly, since it has also become a feature of BrE.”

In ordinary usage, rather than in the idiom, “have got” is the present perfect tense of the verb “get,” with “have” as the auxiliary (as in “I have got infected”). But in the idiom we’re discussing, the OED says, “have got” functions as the present-tense equivalent of “have.”

And “have” in the idiomatic “have got” is the main verb (not an auxiliary). So both grammatically and semantically, “I have got” = “I have.” In fact, the question  “Have you got a screwdriver?” could be rephrased more formally as “Have you a screwdriver?”

(We might add that many speakers find a sentence like “Have you a screwdriver?” to be excessively formal. Americans in particular seem to prefer questions phrased with “do” when there’s a direct object: “Do you have a screwdriver?”)

You might wonder why English speakers started using the idiomatic “have got” in the first place. After all, the simple “have” performed that function for hundreds of years, and still does.

As we said in a 2014 post, there are two theories about the likely origins of this usage, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary. Thus “got” was added as an informal prop.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So if a sentence like “I’ve a cat” felt unnatural or abrupt, one could use “I’ve got a cat” instead.

We should mention another familiar idiomatic use of “have got”—the one that means “must.” Here too, the “got” is not essential to the meaning. “I have got to leave” = “I have to leave” = “I must leave.”

And again, a “do” reply to this variety of “have got” question is perfectly acceptable: “Have you got to leave?” … “I do.”

The “have got” that indicates obligation or necessity is followed by a “to” infinitive, like “to leave.” (The other “have got” idiom, the one indicating possession, is followed by a direct object, like “a screwdriver.”) We wrote about this usage in 2010.

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