Use of letters F and V in German

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Ben Jamin, Jan 21, 2013.

  1. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    I wonder what the rule for the use of letters F and V in modern German is. Both have the same phonetic value, but both are used. The reason must be historic changes in phonology, I suppose. So, what is the history of these letters?
    I have observed one regularity so far: the V is used mostly as an initial letter in words of Germanic origin (some exceptions like Hanover), but both V and F are used initially.
  2. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I don't think there is a reliable rule for native words. Middle High German used the letters interchangeably and when spelling became fixed most /f/ sounds were "frozen" with the spelling "f" and a few with the spelling "v". For foreign words, original spelling is observed.
  3. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Hi Berndf - a few quick follow-ups:
    1) Am I correct to assume that the V at one point drifted towards an F-sound? If so - when did it happen? In the Middle Ages, verfolgen was borrowed into Scandinavian as forfølge. The o > ø is probably from Low German pronunciation, but no word was borrowed into Scandinavian where German V is rendered with v-sound.
    2) It seems to me that Dutch/Flemish uses the V for F more often than other German varieties. Do you happen to know if this is a conscious choice or is it related to traits in Low German phonology?
  4. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The letter "v" (consonantal "u" to be precise since graphical differentiation between "u" and "v" is a more recent development) never was anything but /f/ in German. Old Germanic languages didn't have /v/. [f] and [v] where allophones of /f/. /v/ in modern German and modern Scandinavian languages is derived from /w/ and not from */v/. Middle and Modern English /v/ is derived from French /v/ and not from any Old English or Norse phoneme.
  5. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Interesting - my field is Scandinavian languages, and the /w/ > /v/ transitioning into Norse, is a classic examples there. Due to the prevalence of "V for F" in the German languages, I speculated whether one of them represented a intermediate stage, so thanks for clearing that up. A follow-up to the follow-up then: Why did both V and F come to represent /f/? When did this happen? Did both of them always represent /f/ in German?
  6. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    When /w/ developed towards /v/ (/w/ > /β/ > /ʋ/ > /v/ -- varying between /ʋ/ and /v/ in modern dialects), the /f/ allophones [f] - [v] ([v]=intervocalic, [f] elsewhere) merged to [f]. This merger is actually not 100% complete (maybe only 99%). Some people pronounce, e.g., Richhofen = [ʁɪçtʰho:v(ə)n] and not [ʁɪçtʰho:f(ə)n] and I have also occasionally heard Hannoveraner = [hɐnoːvəʁäːnɐ] rather than [hɐnoːfəʁäːnɐ] (phonemic in both cases /hanoːfəʁaːnɐ/).

    PS: On Forvo there are two samples for Hannoveraner - one with a voiced "v" and one with an unvoiced one.:)
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2013
  7. Ihsiin

    Ihsiin Senior Member

    Also from Old English [f]: "heofon" -> "heaven", "yfel" -> "evil", etc.
  8. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    I was stunned by how different they were! As a native German speaker - can you tell if they both of them have a Hanoverian accent (I know the source material is very limited)?

    And - as I mentioned above - in Dutch (a language I read, but do not speak) it seems to me the V/F is even more complicated. I often have a hard time deciding whether it is /v/ or /f/ - or something in between - I hear. Does anyone know anything about the Dutch pronunciation of V?
  9. Roy776

    Roy776 Senior Member

    Kraków, Poland
    German & AmE
    Dutch normally has a distinction between /v/ and /f/. /v/ is usually pronounced as /v/ ([v]/, while /f/ is pronounced the same way it is in German, but there are (as far as I know) some dialects which do pronounce /v/ as /f/, so depending on who you listen to, it might well sound like an /f/.
  10. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    These are intervocalic [v]s in following the Old English allophonic distribution. The re-spelling with "v" is consequence not cause of the phonemization of /v/ which happened as a consequence of the strong French influence in ME to be able to distinguish words like fault and vault.
  11. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The speaker who says it with a voiced "v" is from Hamburg which is my home town. I also say it voiced. I haven't systematically investigated it but I have the impression that remnants of the old allophonic variation are most frequently found with Northern speakers.
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2013
  12. Lugubert Senior Member

    To my native Swedish ears, there's a trichotomy: for letter names, /f/ is [ef], /v/ is [ve], and /w/ is [we]. That [v] sounds very much like being devoiced, in a way intermediate between [f] and [v].

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