John Larrysson Column: The F Sound

The F-sound (IPA /f/) has four spellings. I have sympathy for children trying to learn the alphabet and then spell words with it. These spellings are, F as in feet, PH as in photograph, FF as in stuff and GH as in tough. The F spelling we all know. This week, I will cover PH. Later I will explain the others.

audio 1

The Modern English alphabet was copied from the Romans. They took the idea of an alphabet from the Greeks. (Google "Greek alphabet" to see the original.) F is from the Roman's Latin alphabet. The Greeks had a letter phi, which looked like this: . In English /f/ is usually spelled F. Originally F was a sloppy and simplified used by Romans to represent the Greek letter. In most Western European languages the Latin F is used.

audio 2

In English the spelling PH is used to show that the word is of Greek origin or created from Greek words. For example, the word photograph is a 19th century creation, using Greek parts. The Greek photo- means light and -graphos means something written. A few other words mistakenly also use this PH spelling. The word phony (also spelled phoney) is a fake-Greek word ironically meaning fake. Some words, such as fantasy, originally spelled p-h-a-n-t-a-s-y, are of Greek origin, but have been converted from PH to F to make spelling easier. The PH spelling of /f/ is most commonly found at the beginning of words.

audio 3

Almost all English words ending in -PH use the suffix -graph, from the Greek graphikos. There are a few exceptions. These include the boy's names Ralph and Randolph. Ralph is from the Old English , which literally means wolf-adviser. Randolph is a Norman name meaning raven-wolf. Staph is short for staphylococcus, a variety of bacteria that cause skin infections and food poisoning. Triumph (success in battle) is from the Latin word triumpus and originally from the Greek word thriambos.

audio 4

PH in the middle of a word is usually the result of a Greek prefix, suffix or a compound word. Many scientific and medical words use these PH word-forming parts. A few whole words from Greek have an internal PH. Examples include: alphabet (alphabetos), asphalt (asphaltos) and pamphlet (pamphilos).

PH is most commonly found at the beginning of English words borrowed from Greek. PH at the end of a word usually is in the suffix -graph. There are a great many PH-containing suffixes and prefixes in scientific English. Later I will survey some of the more common ones.

audio 5

Other Phonics Articles:

The Oi/Oy Sound

Silent D Is Not Always Silent




Stranger Pronunciations of C


The Letter C is Useless

The letter B

The aw-sound

The Schwa Sound

The Magic-e

The Letter A a


by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE:Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

General Enquiry: We welcome enquiries and feedback. Please contact us through [email protected]