Home > International, Language > Phonetically Speaking: Dead Language Edition

Phonetically Speaking: Dead Language Edition

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Iceland is fascinating for many reasons– the geographically isolated country is geologically, ecologically, and culturally unique– and I am fortunate to have spent time exploring the land of the ice. One of Iceland’s many notable features is its language. Icelandic is a living language, meaning that Icelanders create new words for new things, rather than acquiesce in the name the new thing bears. Put another way, there is an Icelandic word for everything; the language adopts no foreign words.

English is not a living language and so provides an illustrative counterexample. Americans enjoy foreign cuisine, and when they refer to one of these non-domestic delights, they do so by using the food’s original name. They happily call a Mexican favorite “taco,” rather than some newly created American word meaning “folded flat bread sandwich.” By contrast, Icelandic roughly mirrors the latter approach.*

As the comparison with Icelandic demonstrates, English speakers adopt foreign words into their vocabularies as often as they learn about new things that originated in cultures of a different tongue. Sometimes these words come from languages that do not use the English alphabet. These words require a new spelling using English alphabet letters. For example, the word “photography” comes from Greek roots (photos (ϕοτοσ), light, and graphos (γραοσ), writing). Another example is the word “giraffe,” which etymologists trace through French to Arabic, and possibly to an African dialect.

My question: why do English speakers denote the “f” sound with a written “f” for words from some languages and a written “ph” for words from others? Because phonetics likely is the primary guide in the described written translation process, a difference in pronunciation probably explains most spelling decisions. In America, at least, “f” and “ph” have the same pronunciation, however, so if there is a reason for the difference, it must be something else. Is there an explanation for this particular spelling decision?

* This may not be exactly correct, but it is my basic understanding of Icelandic linguistics. If there are any Icelanders reading this, they should feel free to correct me in the comment section.

Categories: International, Language
  1. Mitch
    January 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    What’s the Icelandic word for Internet? I bet it’s Internet.

    Here’s an interesting, somewhat related article from The Economist about the relationship between cell phones and culture.


  2. mjbradley85
    January 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Alec, tricky question. I had to take “History of the English Language” and “Middle English during school and what they revealed was basically that our modern language is, like you mention, a sort of a bastardly creation.

    The modern spelling and pronunciation of countless words can be traced back simply to popular piece(s) of literature which coined them (or made them common knowledge). Bibles translated/published by people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale are probably some of the best examples of this – and of course, Bill Shakespeare enjoyed just making words up (20k+).

    Words will travel from Latin, to French, to Greek, and then back into English – translated dozens of times over by people who knew many languages (monks, etc).

    Perhaps some English words with “Ph” came directly from the Greek letter “Phi,” while others traveled back into any other countless languages before being re-codified again in English with a ridiculous F.

    That’s mai too sence¿


    • AD
      January 25, 2010 at 3:20 pm

      Thank you for lending some authority to this, Matt. I had considered Greek letters as an explanation, as you suggest in your fourth paragraph. Letters like α and Φ are written out as “alpha” and “phi,” but only by non-Greek-alphabet folks. That is, to the Greeks, “phi” was Φ and none other, right? The English-alphabet translator could have just as easily chosen “fi” (or maybe “fie,” “fy,” or even “fee”) and “alfa.”

      Because the pattern seems to track languages of origin, perhaps your ubiquitous literature theory makes sense. Greek works may have been more likely to be read and translated at a particular time by a particular group of people who, for some reason, made a spelling decision that has stuck. Similarly for words from other alphabets, with different groups settling on different spellings. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

  3. Chels
    January 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I just read a related article in the Danish news. Here is a translation -it is not perfect because they often refer to specific Danish words that are then translated to English, but if you roll over, you can see the original text.

  4. AD
    February 10, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Loyal reader mjbradley85 sent an engaging article on living languages, the relationship between language and culture, linguistics, and a variety of other relevant topics. It is available at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto?printable=true

  5. AD
    March 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I came across another interesting spelling last night during some Lenten reading:
    “Some people brought him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged Jesus to place his hands on him. So Jesus took him off alone, away from the crowd, put his fingers in the man’s ears, spat, and touched the man’s tongue. Then Jesus looked up to heaven, gave a deep groan, and said to the man, ‘Ephphatha,’ which means, ‘Open up!’ At once the man was able to hear, his speech impediment was removed, and he began to talk without any trouble.” Mark 7:32-35 (Today’s English Version).

    A quick search suggests ephphatha is an Aramaic word, and one site provides pronunciation: “ef’-a-tha, ef-a’-tha.” In the course of casual reading, the double ph made me want to say “ef-fa-tha,” but the given pronunciation seems to be along the lines of a word spelled “effatha” and pronounced as such.

    I’m not sure this gets us anywhere, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing a word spelled with a double ph and thought it was worth recording here. Maybe some Aramaic scholars will stumble by and offer their insight.

  6. Joshua
    April 20, 2010 at 11:40 am

    I have to question the definition of “living language” used in this post. My understanding is that a language is considered “living” if it has a community of native speakers, or something along those lines. English has several hundred million native speakers alive today.

    Saying that a language is only “living” if it generates new words from its own roots only rather than adopting foreign language words into its vocabulary does not seem like a particularly useful definition. Even if that were the criterion for being “living,” why would anyone suggest that new English words are never generated from English roots?

    • AD
      April 20, 2010 at 11:58 am

      Joshua, thank you for your comment. You are probably right that “living language,” as a matter of linguistics, has a definition broader than the one I’ve employed here. You may also be correct that my definition is not useful, although I initially am inclined to disagree.

      The point of discussing Icelandic was to present a foil to English and introduce the question of the post, which is about the English spelling of foreign words from foreign alphabets.

  7. Joshua
    April 20, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    In fairness, the distinction between languages that adopt foreign words directly and those that generate their own terms from their own roots may be useful, and I would say that it’s at least an interesting distinction. But calling the two types of languages “dead” and “living” is likely to be confusing.

    I guess we need to find some foreign language that already has terms distinguishing between the two kinds of languages, and then adopt those terms directly. 😉

  8. May 22, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: