Lef- or lieu-tenant?

I was watching the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice this weekend because I fear the heat of summer is not far off and I wanted to get one last dose of hot tea and drizzle. But then I was distracted by the British accents. Particularly the pronunciation of “lieutenant” as “lef”-tenant. Where did that come from? I know the British do weird things to r’s, but that “f”? Where did it come from??

“Lieutenant” definitely has a French origin, from “lieu” and “tenant”. “Lieu” meaning “placeholder” (c.f. “in lieu”), and “tenant” meaning “person who holds a title”, so a “lieu tenant” is a replacement/deputy leader. The military rank sense dates from the 1570s. But the French pronounce “lieu” much closer to what we do in America. There is no intrusive “f” in the French version. So what’s up with the British (and other Commonwealth nations’) pronunciation?

One theory is that since the letters “u” and “v” were historically written the same, there was some confusion over what the spelling actually was. And the “v” was interpreted as an “f” by English speakers, and the pronunciation persists to this day. The OED, however, rejects this hypothesis. And I’m inclined to agree with the OED. It’s not usually the case that a word makes it into common use through written form alone. When the French-speaking Normans came to England, they didn’t just conduct all their business in writing. They also spoke French, and so English gained many words of French origin. Plus, the actual spelling “leftenant” is attested quite early (1300s!). So if it didn’t come from some spelling confusion, where did the “leftenant” pronunciation come from?

English speakers may have assimilated many French words into their language, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have hard feelings towards the French after more than a century of conflict. It’s well-documented that certain British social classes changed their accent to distinguish themselves from the rising lower/middle class, and perhaps “leftenant” and other French “mispronunciations” are the British way of “sticking it to the man”.

So, maybe the British anglicized the pronunciation as a way of protesting against the French conquerors. But why do we Americans say “lieutenant” if it was already established as “leftenant” (and even sometimes spelled that way) by the time of the American Revolution in the 1770s? To answer this, let’s look at the history of the relationship between France and the US. When we were fighting the British, the French were our main ally. This further cemented the divide between the English and the French, but created warm relations between the early US and France. The early Americans had a much friendlier relationship with the French than the British did, so we borrowed the pronunciations closer to French. This theory works for other words like “fillet” and “valet” too, which don’t fall into the “u”/”v” spelling confusion category. Now, this hypothesis is also speculation, but it seems to fit more of the facts than the spelling confusion hypothesis.

As of right now, the actual reason for the “leftenant” pronunciation is a mystery. But there were probably cultural and political influences on the pronunciation of French-origin words, and we can see that by looking at the differences between American and British accents. This is not a very good answer to the question posed at the beginning of the post, but sometimes there is not a good explanation right away. Studying even something as inconsequential as the pronunciation of a single word can open up a world of scholarship on history and culture and politics (as well as spelling and vowels).

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