Spelling, in principle, should reflect pronunciation, but I've also read that the opposite can happen, and that the pronunciation of a word already in circulation can be changed by altering/standardising its spelling. I'm afraid I forget the publication - it was several years ago - but a striking example that was given was the word clothes, which, as it's usually pronounced now, involves a cluster of consonants which is physically awkward for an English speaker to utter. According to this book, in centuries past the word was pronounced more like close (to rhyme with rose) which is a lot easier to say even today, and the change occurred because of the standardisation of spelling.

As anyone who's handled old books knows, the genitive/possessive apostrophe did not become common practice until well into the eighteenth century, and was not fully standardised until the Victorian era. Before then, it was quite correct to write, for example, in the Articles of Union of 1707, "Her Majesties Great Seal". At that time, did people write "wifes" meaning wife's and "wives" meaning wives', or did they write "wives" for both, and did pronunciation reflect this? The construction wife's is slightly awkward to say, and so I wouldn't be surprised if it was an eighteenth century concoction.

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    There’s nothing awkward about wife’s /waɪfs/ that isn’t equally awkward about wives /waɪvz/. Apart from the voicing of the final cluster (and the different in vowel length this automatically produces), they’re entirely identical. Also, pronouncing clothes as /kləʊz/ is still at least as common (if not more common) than pronouncing it with the /ð/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 at 12:44
  • There is, of course, an element of subjectivity, but I do find /waɪvz/ more natural than /waɪfs/. If /waɪfs/ isn't awkward - this isn't just a rhetorical question - then why does English have these strange plurals: knives, halves, thieves (and, in Tolkien, dwarves)? – Tom Hosker Jul 21 at 13:28
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    Because in Old English, fricatives we’re voiced intervocalically. This is also why the plural of was is were (the r is an old alternation with z, the voiced counterpart to s), and why bath ~ bathe, half ~ halve and house (n) ~ house (v) all alternate between /θ f s/ and /ð v z/. The vowel after the consonant, which was what triggered the change to begin with, has disappeared, but the different forms remained as slight irregularities. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 at 13:36
  • That's genuinely very interesting and enlightening. You should put that into an answer. For what it's worth, I would accept it. – Tom Hosker Jul 21 at 13:41
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    It doesn’t really answer the question, though. It gives the background of why the voiced variants exist, but I would have to do some research to see whether there was still a vowel there when the -s possessive was generalised, and whether the possessive and the plural were indeed written the same for a while. They may even have been pronounced identically for a while and then, when the possessive case ending was reanalysed as a clitic, the possessive form remade as singular + clitic, making the pronunciations diverge; I don’t know. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 at 13:45

The genetive singular of "wife" in Old English is wīfes. In Old English, fricatives s,θ,f are allophonically voiced between vowels. Therefore, that was pronounced [wi:vəs]. As explained in that handout on the fricative voicing rule, the rule was much more general in OE and became very restricted over time.

The reason for there being intervocalic voicing in OE is in part, simply, "because they can". There was no contrast between voiced and voiceless fricatives but there was a contrast in stops. Intervocalic voicing is a reasonably common phenomenon in the world's languages, especially as an allophonic process (where there is no voicing contrast). Neutralization of /s,z/ is certainly possible between vowel, but it is less likely compared to non-neutralizing processes (the reason for that, I believe, has to do with the fact that "patterns of articulation" and "rules of phonological grammar" are not the same thing).

The "naturalness" intuition may be partially the product of frequency. Clusters like [fs, vz] in the coda are themselves special, in involving root plus suffix. I suspect that [vz] is what you encounter most often, compared to [fs].

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    This is true for Old English, but as the inflection table shows, the plural back then was not wives (or any ancestral form of that), but wīf. So the question of whether both were written the same doesn’t apply to OE at all. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 at 16:32
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    Do you then understand the scope of the question to be "only during that period of English where "wife's" was uniformly spelled "wife's"? I take "wife's" to stand for any period and spelling of English. – user6726 Jul 21 at 16:48
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    No, I understand it to be essentially asking whether, before the apostrophe in the possessive clitic was fixed, the possessive and the plural were ever (commonly) not distinguished in writing. The exact shape of the possessive doesn’t matter so much for that, but there has to be a certain level of identity between the two forms. I wouldn’t use child’s vs children as a counter-example for similar reasons. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 at 16:52
  • I'm not remotely qualified to have an opinion, but, for what it's worth, I'm with user6726 on this one. Of course, it depends on where exactly you place the goalposts, but my question, clarifying slightly, was: Was there ever a time, from Alfred the Great to the present day, that the concept which we express today using the word "wife's" was expressed using a word pronounced /waɪvz/? As far as I can tell, user6726 has answered this question in the affirmative. – Tom Hosker Jul 21 at 17:52
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    It's "more natural" for a speaker of Modern English because we don't seem to mind final voiced clusters. That says exactly nothing about what any particular speaker of one of that cluster of local dialects known collectively as "Old English" might have felt to be "more natural". Face it, there's no evidence at all except inferential hypotheses. So instinct is just guessing. – jlawler Jul 21 at 19:42

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