THE GREEK SOUND \F\ = PH

Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

The sound \f\ is, simply put, a sound with a very reliable spelling in Greek-derived words. Spell it with ph, and you’ll most probably be set. This is because the single letter f did not exist in ancient Greece. However, the Greek letter phi did. (It originally sounded a bit like the sound \p\ in ancient Greek, but began to sound more like \f\ after the fourth century AD.) This rule is extremely – though not 100% – reliable. In fact, if you do a search for words that contain the letter f in the Greek section of Spell It (the word list that predates Words of the Champions), you will come up empty-handed.

If you are spelling a word that originated in Greek (and ONLY in Greek), and you hear the sound \f\, spell the sound with a ph.

Here are some examples of this rule from around spelling bee culture.

2020 WOTCPast Scripps National BeesPast NASCC Bees*
philharmonicmephitisphilanthropy
sophomoricepinephrinecolophony
cenotaphideaphoriablasphemous
anaglyphyphreaticchrysophyte
phloemmesomorphicbacteriophage

*NASCC = North America Spelling Champion Challenge

Exceptions

A few exceptions – few enough to memorize fairly easily – have the sound \f\ spelled with the letter f. These include the words feta, falanga, and flokati. Interestingly enough, all of these have New Greek listed in their etymologies, and not plain Greek. A fourth word, fustanella, also came from New Greek, but then moved into Italian.

Also, note that this rule dictates words that originated in Greek only. Many words originated in Greek, but then moved on to Latin (for example), where the spelling ph sometimes became f. Be aware of these exceptions!