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Lieutenant is a word of French origin, and it is read as /lefˈtenənt/.

I've never learnt French and I don't know anything about French reading rules, unfortunately. But I guess the English reading is related to the original French one.

Why is "lieutenant" read as /lefˈtenənt/ when there is no f in the word?

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    In AmE, it's loo-tenant. Dec 17, 2018 at 12:04
  • There is no /f/, written or pronounced, in lieutenant in French, and there never has been. Colin's answer seems to indicate that the /w/ sound at the end of a word was pronounced a little bit like /v/ in Old French, but I don't believe it ever was actually a /v/. Dec 17, 2018 at 13:14
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Yeah, I know. In British English, it's /lefˈtenənt/.
    – Enguroo
    Dec 17, 2018 at 23:30

1 Answer 1

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Nobody is sure.

/lefˈtenənt/ is indeed the British English pronunciation of lieutenant, but not in American English.

The OED says:

The origin of the β type of forms (which survives in the usual British pronunciation, though the spelling represents the α type) is difficult to explain. The hypothesis of a mere misinterpretation of the graphic form (u read as v ), at first sight plausible, does not accord with the facts. In view of the rare Old French form luef for lieu (with which compare especially the 15th cent. Scots forms luf- , lufftenand above) it seems likely that the labial glide at the end of Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f.

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  • Does that mean that French people pronounced /w/ a little like /v/ in Old French? (Like Hindu and Cockney in Dickens' time.) Is there any other evidence for this? Dec 17, 2018 at 13:07
  • @PeterShor: I don't think it does mean that. It refers to a "labial glide" (which I interpret as /w/) and suggests that it was English speakers who misheard this as a fricative.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 17, 2018 at 14:59

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