Tuesday, August 24, 2010

BEWARE STICKY PHONETICS AHEAD: Why a "u" can become an "f"

Evelyn noted that she has heard a Russian professor say "Efclid" for Euclid  and wonders if there could be a relationship to the British pronunciation of "leftenant" for  lieutenant.  Evelyn, you have a very good ear! Yes, there is a connection.

In the following, a letter enclosed in brackets indicates an actual sound.  An italicized letter refers to spelling, and letters enclosed in quotation marks stand for actual pronunciation of syllables or words. To follow the following, it would be good to have a  mirror handy so you can see what you actually do when you're pronouncing sounds.

A u spelling is often pronounced as a [v] in many languages.  The British,  when they first borrowed the term lieutenant from the French, must have tried to approximate the pronunciation of "ieu" which an English speaker would pronounce as "yeeoo"" (say beauty and notice how you  make a "yoo" after the [b]) Look in your mirror and notice how your lips get rounded as you say "yoo." Now say "www." Same rounding as with a "yooo."  At first, British speakers must have said, "lyoootenant" for lieutenant. Since the word was used in the American Revolution, the first British settlers must have used that pronunciation.

 The British then tried to approximate the French pronunciation more, but naturally and inadvertently, they anglicized the French pronunciation, so, instead of the French combination of "iyer" (without the [r] being  pronounced -- sorry, but not being able to use the correct phonetic symbols is tough)-anyways, instead of that French sound  (which also occurs in  oeuvre) the British then began to use the e as in get and then rounded their lips as for the  [u].  This made for a very awkward pronunciation.  Since their lips were already involved in mgakin the [u].they simply touched their top teeth to the lower lip which makes a [v].

 If you say "live" as in "live audience" and "life" together, you will notice your teeth and lips are in the same postions in both.  Just look in a mirror as you say "f" and "v" and you'll see it.

So what? In lieutenant, when the British turned the u into a v, the next sound was a t, which is voiceless sound.  That is, it is made with the glottal folds at the top of the larynx spread wide so that there is no buzzing. If there is buzzing, you'd have a "d". Say "vvv" and then "fff" in front of a mirror and touch your voicebox lightly you'll feel that the [v] has a vibration, which you can feel in the larynx and also your lower lip,  but not when you're saying "fff.   Similarly, a [d] has the vibration (a voiced sound) and a [t] doesn't.  When talking fast, if two consonants come together, the first one often becomes more like the second one, so the [v] in the British mispronunciation of French lieutenant went from "levtenant" and then, the [v] became an [f] giving us "leftenant."

Russians and other speakers, don't have a [w] sound in their languages and pronounce them like [v], saying "Vy not?" instead of "Why not?"  A [u] is made with the lips rounded as is the [w].  Say "oooh" in front of a mirror, and then say "woooo." They both look alike.

Russians often read a u as if it is a w, which they would pronounce as a [v].   They first  pronounce Euclid as Evklid", but in actual speech, they change the [v] to an  [f]because of the following [k] sound in Euclid.  A [k] is voiceless (produced with no buzzing) just as an [f] is. Try to say "Evklid. If you say it fast, it comes out "Efklid."