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Why is it spelled...?

Why does a singular noun like knife have the plural knives rather than knifes?

This change of <f> to <v> goes back to a feature of Old English spelling and pronunciation. In Old English the letter <f> normally spelled the sound [f], but when it was in between two voiced sounds it spelled [v]. The pair [f] and [v] are basically the same sounds, the only difference between them being that [f] is voiceless — that is, the vocal cords do not vibrate when we pronounce it — and [v] is voiced: the vocal cords do vibrate. Vowels are always voiced, so in Old English when <f> came between two vowels, the sound it spelled continued the voicing, thus becoming [v]. In Old English the singular knife was spelled cnif [knef]; the plural was cnifas [|kne·vschwas], with the <f> in between two vowels and thus spelling the voiced [v]. After the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, the Norman scribes, who were used to spelling [v] with <v>, changed the <f> to <v>, leading to the plural knives.

This alternation of <f> and <v> occurs in many pairs of words: elf, elves; half, halves; life, lives; loaf, loaves; self, selves; shelf, shelves; thief, thieves; wife, wives; wolf, wolves. Some pairs have developed variant plurals with <f>, making them more regular from the point of view of Modern English: dwarf, dwarves, dwarfs; hoof, hooves, hoofs; scarf, scarves, scarfs; staff, staves, staffs; wharf, wharves, wharfs. The <f> / <v> alternation also occurs in twelve, twelfth and in five, fifth: twelve is from Old English twelfa (with <f> between the voiced sounds spelled <l> and <a>); twelfth is from twelfta (with <f> followed by the unvoiced [t]. In five, fifth, five is from Old English fifa, fife, while fifth is from ffta (AES, 28.1.1).

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