Phonetically Speaking: Dead Language Edition
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.