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If, Of, Off.

Tangiora - We will hear from the Spelling Queen soon. She tells me she is going to discuss F words.

Good morning Paquita. What’s this about F words? Last time we spoke we were exploring how to spell long vowels. Why the switch to F words?

Paquita - It’s sort of related, as you will see, to the spelling of vowels. I’ve been with our grandchildren. One of them mixed up OF and OFF in a story book and I said, ‘The two F’s spell [f] - [of]. O and F, with one F, spells [ov]. The letter V did not originally spell [v]. Long ago two F’s spelt [f] and one F spelt [v].

Tangiora - Some kids would answer back to that and say that IF should have two F’s in that case.

Paquita - They’d be right, really, because IF used to be I-F-F. Although we have [ov] and [of] we do not have [iv] as well as [if] and so there is no need to write that extra F any more.

Tangiora - Does F spell [v] in any other words?

Paquita - Not any more. OF is the last one left. In the very olden times F spelt [v] if it was inside a word, and that is why today we say LIFE but not LIFELY because the [f] becomes a [v] inside the longer word, LIVELY. One CALF, but two CALVES because the [f] has gone inside the word and turned into [v], one WIFE but two WIVES because again the terminal sound [f] is now inside the word. That’s why some people even today still say ‘NEVEW’ instead of the modern NEPHEW.

Tangiora - This must have been muddling, with F spelling two sounds.

Paquita - Yes it was but that was in Old England and the Old English scribes knew and understood this. It was after 1066 that the new scribes who arrived in England from France began using one F for [f] and FF, two F’s, for [v]. Then much later on later on V began to spell [v]. Before that it spelt [uu] and [w].

Tangiora - OK, but now that we have got the letter V to spell [v] why do we still use both single and double F to spell [f]. Why is that?

Paquita - We use double F after short, strong vowels spelt with one letter, as in STIFF. It’s an old way which remains with us today of marking short vowels. Every single short vowel used to be followed by double consonants, even little words like ATT. Then the scribes stopped this at the end of words, so CAT now has a single T but KITTEN still has TT inside it. It is how we know how to pronounce WRITTEN and WRITING.

Getting back to F, a single F is used after long vowels, as in LIFE and LEAF, and also after short vowels spelt with two letters, like DEAF. Also a single F comes after weak short vowels, like PREFER. The first vowel is so weak you hardly hear it: PREFER.

Tangiora - Well, that explains two F’s in PIFFLE but only one in RIFLE. What is the word of the day?

Paquita - How about “fisticuffs”, not a common word, but we hear regular news of ‘cuffs or blows with fists, a dust-up, punch-up, a scuffle’. Next time I will talk some more about marking long and short vowels.

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