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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.