I know that 'V' in the German alphabet is for "Vau" and 'F' is "Eff".

Then why are we using 'V' instead of 'F' in German for "Vater"? Similar to the English "father" I would have expected it to be spelt "Fater" rather than "Vater".

  • This is such a complex question, that I vote to close it. To answer the relation between "V" and "F" in modern High German, we would need to explain the whole history of German and Latin sounds /w/, /v/, /b/, /p/ /u/, /f/ etc., as well as the history of the letters "F" and "V/U" in Europe from Roman times onwards. Because if you want to understand the orthography in German "Vater", you'll have to think about Latin "pater" (with a "p"!), about the sounds that existed in Old High German, when Latin script was adapted, about medieval orthorgraphy etc. etc. – user1914 Mar 6 '13 at 15:39
  • @what: Your vote to close has not been counted. – user unknown Mar 6 '13 at 23:02
  • I didn't acutally vote (as in "click the 'close' link"), only vote (as in "that is my opinion, what do you think?"). Maybe I'm wrong. – user1914 Mar 7 '13 at 6:36
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    @what "because it's complex" is not a reason to close a question. I think the author of the question is just confused. I don't think that he/she wanted to know the whole history of the German "Lautverschiebungen". :-) – splattne Mar 13 '13 at 10:42

In all languages including German spelling evolved over time with no fixed rules on orthography or spelling. Nevertheless people tried to find letters for phonetically similar sounds. In the family of phonetically related letters for the modern 'F' we can find the following, also relevant for "father", and "Vater" which have a common Indo-European root with Latin "PATER":

P - F - V - Pf - B

These letters were at times used interchangeably, probably also depending on regional dialects. In Old High German the letter 'V' was not yet used for the phoneme 'F', thus father indeed was spelt "fater". The letters 'U and 'V' were initially identical, and the letter "W" was built from doubling "UU".

In Middle High German the letter 'F' was continuously being replaced by 'V', making this letter far more frequent than today. Many words which today are spelt with 'F' were written with a 'V' then (e.g.: Vrouwe - Frau, Vackel - Fackel, Valke - Falke, vlicken - flicken and many many more).

For reasons read: Warum wurde im Mittelhochdeutsch 'F' durch 'V' ersetzt? (German)

From the 14th Century however writers in the chancellery of the Luxembourgian-Austrian monarchy, later also in the archives of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, and in the literature the letter 'V' was increasingly replaced again by the letter 'F'. This was not done entirely. Some exceptions were still spelt with 'V'. A major influence on these spellings also came from Martin Luther's translation of the Holy Bible, where e.g. father is uniformly spelt "Vater".

Today, only few remnants of the Middle High German spellings are left:

Vater, Vetter, Veste (cf. Festung), ver-, Vieh, viel, vier, Vogel, Volk, voll (cf. Fülle), von, vor

From this rather arbitrary approach how spelling has developed there is no fixed rule to aid us here. We all have to and had to learn them by heart. Many German pupils will face problems with the "Vogel Vau" when learning to write.

For more details on the letter 'V' see: Grimms Wörterbuch

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    „Vater“ und „father“ sind nicht von lateinisch „pater“ abgeleitet: „Vater“ in indogermanischen Sprachen und deren Veränderungen (dt. Wikipedia). – Speravir Mar 6 '13 at 21:26
  • @Speravir Dachte ich auch. – user1914 Mar 7 '13 at 6:38
  • @Takkat Das ist schon ziemlich gut! :-) Was mir fehlt, ist eine Erklärung, warum im MHD begonnen wurde Wörter mit "V" zu schreiben, die bisher mit "F" geschrieben wurden. Und wie der Buchstabe "V" (bei den Römern für /w/) überhaupt für den Laut /f/ benutzt werden konnte -- und gleichzeitig! für das /u/. Du hast ein paar Veränderungen berichtet, es fehlt aber noch die eigentliche Erklärung. Und die ist deshalb kompliziert, weil sie eben nicht für alle heute mit /f/ anlautenden Wörter gleich ausfällt, weil sie Sprachgrenzen in Deutschland berücksichtigen muss, die "Lautlandschaft" früher usw. – user1914 Mar 7 '13 at 6:43
  • @what: ich habe die Diskussion über das stimmhafte geg. stimmlose 'f' im MHD weggelassen, um die Antwort einigermaßen übersichtlich zu lassen und weil es da mehr Vermutungen als Fakten gibt. Du hast in Deinem Kommentar oben richtig festgestellt, dass man hier mehrere Seiten füllen könnte. :) – Takkat Mar 7 '13 at 7:16
  • "U" und "V" waren ursprünglich nur zwei Möglichkeiten, denselben Buchstaben zu schreiben. Aber nur "V" wird im MHD für den Laut /f/ verwendet. War diese Differenzierung der Verwendung der Grund für die Bedeutungstrennung der zwei Grapheme, oder hatten die schon vorher ihren unterschiedlichen Lautwert erhalten (z.B. durch eine Veränderung der Aussprache des Lateinischen und/oder AHD)? – user1914 Mar 13 '13 at 11:35

I haven't a good explanation for this, especially as it looks like the word was actually spelled with "F", e.g. in the Hildebrandslied, one of the oldest German documents:

Hiltibrant gimahalta (Heribrantes sunu):   her uuas heroro man,
ferahes frotoro;   her fragen gistuont
fohem uuortum, hwer sin fater wari

(from http://hub.ib.hu-berlin.de/~hab/arnd/Start.html )

Rough translation:

Hildebrant said (Heribrant's son): He was the older man,
more experienced in life, he started to ask
with few words, who his [Hadubrants] father was

As far as my source knows, it comes form the medieval.
Words nowadays beginning with f were written with v in this time and since 1400 a.c. they started to use f. V was less "sharp" than f.
The source I got it is in german. I hope it helps you anyway. Here is the link.

  • I think the german v still is less 'sharp' than f, actually. – Tara B Mar 5 '13 at 23:49
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    The question is not about words being nowadays written with F but about one or more words, written with V. – user unknown Mar 6 '13 at 2:42
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    @TaraB As a native German I percieve no difference between the pronounciation of "V" and "F". Which is exactly why even native German pupils find it hard to memorize which words are written with which letter -- they cannot hear any difference, because there is none: the first sound in "Fenster" or "Flugzeug" sounds exactly the same as the first sound in "Vater" or "Vogel". – user1914 Mar 6 '13 at 15:28
  • @what: While there are words where F and V are pronounced the same (like in your examples), there are words where V is pronounced like W - for example Vaseline, Vase, Vagabund, Vegetarier, etc. – Thorsten Dittmar Mar 8 '13 at 9:25
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    Ich kann als Muttersprachler keinen Unterschied in der Aussprache der Lettern "V" und "F" in ihrer Bedeutung als Symbole für den Laut /f/ erkennen. Zufrieden? – user1914 Mar 13 '13 at 10:08

All these letters developed from the Semitic alphabet "waw", which was used for /w/ and /u/, via Greek and Latin. In Latin, the letter v still had these two ways of pronunciation.

Then happened language development in the European languages (see Takkats Answer for more information). Sounds shifted, scholars influenced the writing by different intentions, languages diversified and intermixed, …

The result in German was:

  • 2 sounds: [f] and [v]
  • 3 letters: f, v and w
  • → f=[f], w=[v], v can be either one with absolutely no way to distinguish concerning roots.

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