Curious Questions: Why don’t we all agree on how to pronounce ‘lieutenant’?

Martin Fone talks about one of the great quirks of language which divide Britain and America.

Unerringly, Oscar Wilde pointed out in a short story, The Canterville Ghost (1887), that ‘we really have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’; while George Bernard Shaw is often quoted as having said that Britain and America ‘are two nations separated by a common language’.  The good people at Quote Investigator can’t actually find Shaw’s memorable turn of phrase in either his writings or interviews, but regardless of its origins the sentiment has struck a chord for many decades.

English as used on either side of the Atlantic has bifurcated in all manner of ways, not least its grammatical construct, spelling, pronunciation, and definitions. The British have a preference to write to someone rather than write them, wear a vest under a shirt rather than over one, and glory in the sometimes illogical, abstruse, and absurd rules with which we have constrained ourselves in expressing our thoughts verbally and on paper.

There are many reasons why two variants of the same language have emerged, but a strong motivation on the American side was to grasp the opportunities presented to a newly independent country, liberated from the British yoke of oppression, a sentiment that sounds vaguely familiar. In linguistics, this spirit was epitomised by the Connecticut-born descendent of a Pilgrim settler in Plymouth, Noah Webster. ‘Now is the time, and this is the country’, he wrote in Dissertations on the English Language (1789), ‘let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government’.

A root and branch language reform would enable America to avoid many of the ‘corruptions’ that bedevilled the language as used in Britain, such as regional dialects, affectation, or which reflected nostalgia for English manners and customs, or emphasised class divisions. It was an opportunity to avoid the deleterious effects of ‘superfluous ornament’ in prose such as that exhibited by Edward Gibbon and Samuel Johnson, of the language of the British court and noblemen, and to swerve ‘the influence of men, learned in Greek and Latin, but ignorant of their own tongue’.

“The logic behind the pronunciation of Worcester and Gloucester is hard to explain, especially to someone who has just visited Cirencester” 

Recommended videos for you

Webster had already laid the foundation stone for his linguistic revolution with the publication in 1783 of volume one of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, better known as The American Spelling Book or, because of its distinctive binding, simply as The Blue-Backed Speller. It proved to be hugely influential, selling around 100 million copies between its publication and the early 1900s. It cleverly used American heroes and writers to create national symbols around whom the country could be galvanised.  

What was truly revolutionary about Webster’s approach to language was his determination to simplify some of the more exasperating features of the English language. For example, the tetragraph -ough has at least nine distinct form of pronunciation with no discernible patterns for choosing between them and the logic behind the pronunciation of Worcester and Gloucester is hard to explain, especially to someone who has just visited Cirencester. This was a particularly appealing idea for a country that, during the 19th century, received waves of migrants from central and southern Europe for whom English was not their native tongue.

Webster’s approach was to adopt more phonetic or simplified spellings, preferring plow over plough, eliminating many of the silent letters that peppered the English language, so that, for example, -our in honour became -or, and reversing the ending -re so that centre became center. That is not to say that he invented these spellings; rather he often chose between existing variants. However, he was the first to adopt a rigid and determined approach to the establishment of a spelling convention based on simplicity, analogy, and etymology.

Some of Webster’s suggestions, though, fell on stoney ground, such as tung for tongue, wimmen for women, and iland for island. He also waded into the debate around which letters should be included in the alphabet. Benjamin Franklin had argued that c, j, q, w, x, and y were unnecessary and that they should be replaced by symbols to reflect the sounds of a as in ball and o in folly, th as in think, th as in thy, sh as in ship, ng as in repeating, and u as in unto.

“My English teacher was appalled to find that the majority of the class, sated on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters, plumped for lootenant”

Webster begged to differ with his former mentor, including each of them in his meisterwerk, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), while reviving the fortunes of j and v, hitherto seen as simply alternative forms of i and u, by giving them sections in their own right. His dictionary was not a commercial success, forcing him to mortgage his home to raise the monies to fund an expanded second edition, which was published in 1840. In 1843, the year of his death, rights to his dictionary were acquired by George and Charles Merriam and his name lives on in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Potato, and tomato, amongst others, might have been the acid test for pronunciation for George Gershwin in Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (1937), but in my formative teenage years it was lieutenant. Conducting a straw poll on its pronunciation, my English teacher was appalled to find that the majority of the class, sated on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters, plumped for lootenant, prompting a tirade on the insidious attack on all things British by American ‘culture’.

Lieutenant, a compound of two French words, lieu meaning ‘place’ and tenant ‘holding’, describes someone who fulfils the role of someone more senior or who functions as their deputy, the military equivalent of the civilian locum tenens. The earliest examples in English are Scottish, John Barbour’s The Bruce (c1375) using luftenand and the first syllable appearing in other 15th century variants as leeft, luf, leyf, and leyfe. A letter found in the records of the Swiss canton of Fribourg, dated May 29,1447, and signed by Ly Leuftenant douz Chastellant Davenche, seems to accord with the Scots spelling.

There is no definitive explanation why the lieu part of the compound was pronounced leff rather than loo. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tentatively suggests that the letters ‘u’ and ‘v’ were interchangeable in Middle English with ‘v’ often used at the start of a word and ‘u’ elsewhere. However, it recognises that logically it should mean that lieutenant was pronounced with an ‘oo’. Alternatively, the ‘f’ and ‘v’ pronunciations, it opines, ‘may be due to association’ with the noun ‘leave’ or the adjective ‘lief’ or, more likely, ‘that the labial glide at the end of the Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f’.

While the spelling of lieutenant settled down in the 17th century, the question of how to pronounce it rumbled on. John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1793) gave the ‘actual pronunciation’ of the first syllable as ‘lef’ or ‘liv’ but expressing the hope that ‘the regular sound, lewtenant, will in time become current’. Naturally, Noah Webster waded in, recommending only one pronunciation, lutenant.

Any suggestion that the preferred British pronunciation is due to an innate reluctance to refer to officers using the term ‘loo’ can be put to rest. The slang expression for a toilet did not appear until around the First World War, the first citation in the OED being from Joyce’s Ulysses (1920), and only gained wide usage in the 1930s.

Walker’s hopes that the pronunciation of the word would be standardised across the two countries were dashed and the two distinct forms persist to this day. Vive la difference!