My wife is Russian and I am learning it. One thing I seem to see is that no "native" or "elementary" words seem to start with the letter ф (other than the name Fedor perhaps, and I don't know it's etymology). I see it in works like телефон etc.

I haven't seen the answer searching online so far.

Was the [f] sound an early artifact of Russian, or is its origin traceable later?

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    Fedor (Фёдор) = Theodore = Θεόδωρος = gift of god. In greek words, Russian Ф can ascend to either Θ (which used to be in the Russian alphabet specifically for this purpose) or greek Ф (e.g. ФОТО). In English this is th and ph respectively. However, Russian doesn't have a phoneme for "th". Sometimes it renders it as "т", and sometimes as "ф", depending on the origin and time of borrowing.
    – Zeus
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 1:18
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    Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fita offers some history insights.
    – Igor G
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 10:17

2 Answers 2


The letter ф is found almost exclusively in loanwords. The only exceptions are sparse native Russian words like дрофа, филин and onomatopoeic words like фу, фыркать etc.

The sound [f], though, can be found in many native Russian words as a devoiced allophone of /в/ in words like вторник, вперёд etc.

It got there after the fall of the reduced, when consonant clusters with /в/ preceding a voiceless consonant became possible. Russian, unlike other East Slavic languages, has readily accepted this sound. Belarusian and Ukrainian instead tend to labialize the /в/ or use prosthetic vowels in the words with etymological weak reduced vowels after /в/

Before the orthographic reform of 1918, there were two letters for the sound [f]: ф and ѳ. The latter was used almost exclusively in Greek and Hebrew loanwords, paralleling the original spelling of these words. It was used, among other words, in the name Ѳёдоръ < Θεόδωρος that you're mentioning in your question.

The two letters denoted the same sound, and the difference between them had never been phonetic, so the latter had been eliminated during the reform.

  • 1
    to my knowledge in Greek there was no /f/ sound as well - just wanted to stress out the fact that it's about original spelling, but not original pronunciation.
    – shabunc
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 8:02
  • 3
    @shabunc: there was in Byzantine Greek
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 9:13
  • not the θ though - I just realized that it's f in Russian not because it (ever) was f in Greek.
    – shabunc
    Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 10:40
  • @shabunc - In some Greek borrowings Russian has [t] for Greek <θ>: театр, библиотека, but still there's феатр and вивлио́фика, which are considered archaic and outdated now.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 17:32
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    I may add that according to "Historical Grammar of Russian" by Ivanov V. V., before the fall of the reduced <f> in loanwords had been transformed to <p>. See Степан-Στέφανος, Осип-Ιωσήφ (though there is a name Ἰώσηπος), and arguably парус-φάρος.
    – NuncTorUs
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 13:01

The θ in Greek represents a dental fricative /θ/, and the φ in Greek a labiodental fricative /f/, just like the ф in Russian.

Russian however does not have the sound /θ/, which is found in Greek. So for a Russian speaker, /θ/ and /f/ sounds really similar, so they used /f/ for the /θ/ sound, but still wrote it using the Greek letter (pre-reform), similar to how English writes "ph" instead of "f" in Greek loanwords.

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