On the rise of /v/

Sep 29, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I mentioned that the rise of /v/ as a full-fledged phoneme in English may be a sign of Celtic influence. Today we will look at an alternative theory for the rise of /v/. But first, what does it mean that /v/ is a phoneme?

A phoneme is a sound of language that is used to discriminate meaning. Two sounds are considered separate phonemes if they can appear in minimal pairs, that is words that differ only by that one sound. For example, the existence of minimal pairs like dill and till or bid and bit indicate that /t/ and /d/ are separate phonemes in English. However, not all sound distinctions are phonemic in English. For example, whether or not a /t/ is aspirated does not change the meaning of a word. In other words, there are no minimal pairs in which /t/ is either aspirated or not. But in another language the same distinction which is not phonemic in English may be phonemic; for example, aspiration is phonemic in Thai, which means that Thai has minimal pairs of words that differ only by whether [t] is aspirated or not.

In Old English, the sound [v] was not a separate phoneme, but a variant of the phoneme /f/. In this respect, it had the same status as the aspirated variant of /t/ does in Modern English. If you use it in the wrong place, you will sound like someone with an accent, but the meaning conveyed will not change. In Old English, when /f/ occurred between vowels (and in some cases after /l/), it was pronounced as voiced, that is as [v]. This was the case, for example, in the boldfaced word in the Biblical passage from Genesis 3:1:

Ēac swelċe sēo nædre wæs ġēappre þonne ealle þā ōðre nīetenu þe God ġeworhte ofer eorðan.

The fact that [v] was a variant of the phoneme /f/ rather than a separate phoneme in Old English helps us understand the form of the plural in such present-day English pairs as leaf/leaves, wife/wives, life/lives, elf/elves, wolf/wolves. First of all, in Old English the now-silent letter “e” was pronounced; hence, in the plural form the phoneme /f/ occurred between two vowels (or between an /l/ and a vowel). As a result, the /f/ got pronounced as its voiced variant, [v]. And what about dwarf? In present-day English, it has two possible plural forms: the form dwarfs is the older plural form. In Old English the singular form was dwerg — with no /f/ to switch to [v] in the plural. The other present-day plural form, dwarves is an innovation created by analogy with elves etc.

So if in Old English [v] was a mere variant of /f/, how did it become its own phoneme? As mentioned above, Celts are one group “blamed” for this transformation. Normans are another. As is well known, Normans introduced many words of “French” origin (it is more accurate to say Old French or even Norman French). Without the Normans we would have no liberty and no state, no faith and no miracles, no crime but also no justice, no fashion, no leisure and no art. But Norman French loans include not only nouns but also verbs (e.g., enjoy, complain, marry) and adjectives (e.g., foreign, perfect, simple).

Importantly, among the many words borrowed from Norman French are words that start with a [v]: virgin, virtue, verdict, veil, veal, vinegar, vase (note that face was also borrowed from Norman French around the same time). This massive borrowing of Norman French words that start with [v] led to the appearance of such minimal pairs as few/view, fine/vine, file/vile, which in turn led to the reanalysis of /v/ as a separate phoneme rather than a variant of /f/.

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