Wayne Adult Community Center
Feature article from the December 2004 Newsletter


Fad or Phuture?

 In our polyglot language there are often several spellings that could produce the sound of a given word, and the spelling we actually use is not the most logical one:  For example “crazy quilt” might better be spelled “kraizee kwilt”.  Conversely, the same letter or combination of letters in English is often pronounced differently in different words.  Perhaps the most extreme example is the combination “ough”:  Say the words “tough”, “through”, though”, “bough”, and  “thought”:  Five different sounds for the same letter combination.  (In fact six if you count the archaic “hiccough”.)

  No wonder people trying to learn English as a second language say it makes them crazy.

  Well, at least we don’t spell the name of a neighboring state: “Pencilveinia”.

  How did this come about?  The answer is that English has been formed of words taken from many other languages, each of which has its own rules for spelling and pronunciation.  Also, in many cases the words are from languages whose alphabets are drastically different from ours (e.g. Greek), and in other cases even if the alphabets are similar to ours, their language contains some sounds that are different; English speakers may not even be able to pronounce them (e.g. the sound of the Welsh “ll”).  Where the alphabet is different, adopted words are transliterated into the closest available English equivalents.  The transliteration his not always competent (e.g. the use of  “ch” to represent a sound from Hebrew that is better represented by “kh”, although in either case the average English speaker cannot reproduce the sound of the original letter).

  Another example of a transliteration from another language is “ph”.  According to the exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary, it is an attempted representation of the sound for the Greek letter φ.  The original sound of φ is believed to have been similar to the English pf, although by the second century it had probably become the sound make by blowing through slightly open lips.  The Romans therefore represented it by ph, to avoid confusion with the Roman letter f.  Confusion developed nonetheless, and ph has disappeared from languages such as Italian and Spanish.  In English, however, there is a typically schizophrenic use of ph in some words but f in other words that have the same root (e.g. “phantasy” and “fantastic”).

  And now to modern times:  Several decades ago the term “phone phreak” was a self-descriptive term devised by those who studied the telephone system and made devices that could fool the system into placing long distance phone calls without charge to the caller.

More recently, slang words such as “phat” (meaning very good) have come into use.   

 And most recently, terms including “phoods” and “phishing” have appeared.  “Phoods” is derived from the words “pharmaceutical” and “food”.  It describes nutritionally enhanced products.  “Phishing” originally meant attending a concert by the band Phish, but it now refers to a scam rampant on the Internet, in which people are tricked into revealing sensitive information such as passwords and financial data.

  Will “ph” catch on as a universal substitute for “f”?  Or will “f” replace “ph” in English words?  Neither is likely:  The ph vs. f interchange has been going on literally for centuries, as has, for that matter, the alternate use of c and k for the same sound.  Occasionally, there have been movements to make English spelling more uniform by substituting f for ph in all cases, and always using k in place of the hard c.  For a while, the newspaper the New York Daily News even tried to energize the movement by using simplified and uniform spelling.  But to date, the spelling reform movements have all failed.

  So some of the new “ph” terms probably will stay around for quite awhile, and new terms using variants of existing spellings are undoubtedly coming into first use even as this article is being written.

W. A. Shapiro

1/8/05 - 1110