Spelling leitmotif

The anglicised German word leitmotif (or leitmotiv) has two main meanings: a dominant and recurring theme, such as one finds in a novel; or a melodic phrase associated with a person, thing, idea, sentiment, or situation, and characteristic thereof. It comes from the German leit- (lead, leading, i.e. guiding) + motiv (motif, theme, from French motif). The German plural is Leitmotive (German nouns take capital letters); the English is leitmotifs or leitmotivs.

In an introduction by Nikolay Andreyev to Tolstoy’s Master and Man (Dent & Sons, Everyman’s Library, 1982), I came across an unusual spelling: leitmotives (possibly hyphenated):

My first guess was that it was a misspelling — an understandable one from a non-native English speaker — but then I wondered if it was a rare variant form. I knew that leitmotifs could also be spelled leitmotivs (German v is generally unvoiced and pronounced as f),* so I wanted to give the writer and publishers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the term had been more anglicised than I thought. A look online brought up a letters page from The Musical Times, 1 February 1928. See the second letter, from J. A. Westrup, and the reply by Mr. Calvocoressi, for a brief discussion about spelling.

Westrup, appealing to Fowler, contends that leitmotive “is no word at all”. Calvocoressi counters that Leitmotif “quite obviously . . . is becoming anglicised”, but in the next paragraph he says that the word “means a motive whose recurrence and other functions are always governed by an association of some kind”. Which is all very well, except that he writes motive where I would write motif. The OED includes motive as a variant spelling of motif, but it’s one I’ve seen only rarely (except when I go looking).

Later in the aforementioned introduction, the same strange spelling appears:

Here, not only have we motif spelled motive, but tendentiousness is spelled tendenciousness — another unusual variant. In any case, there’s no pleasing everyone: as the lines at the bottom of this page show, even Leitmotif has its critics:

* Edited to include “generally”, following Sean’s helpful comment (see below).

10 Responses to Spelling leitmotif

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    […] leitmotivs (German v is unvoiced and pronounced as f) […]

    Being sure your explanation re the pronunciation is just for your example, Stan, I think some of your readers could think it applies to all ‘German’ vs.

    In general it does, with – surprise – quite a few exceptions. In borrowings such as Venus, Lava, Vokal, nervös, Lokomotive (engine) etc. the v is pronounced as in vegetables.
    Same goes for the plural of Leitmotiv, i.e. Leitmotive.
    But some more examples: Aktiv (f), but Aktivität (v) and ein aktiver blogger.
    And sometimes, depending in which part of Germany you live, you would hear f.e. Eva or David pronounced either Efa/Dafid or Eva/David.

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Sean. I knew it was a simplification, but now I see it was an oversimplification! I’ve inserted a qualifier.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    For a German word, there is a lightness to this which sounds pretty heavy-handed when translated into English. I am delighted it made its way into the ODE.

    As to the v as “f” I only have to think of “Volkswagen” which gives up 2 hard vs for the price of one, so to speak.


  4. Stan says:

    WWW: Yes, leitmotif is a fine and rather musical word. I’m glad it’s available even if it offers little more than motif already does.

  5. Sarra says:

    hello! Just discovered you today. Leitmotif/ve and motif/ve are things I’ve come across fairly often – I’m realising now that that’s rather unusual, and might have something to do with my penchant for reading old books/articles on music (as well as having a little inherited library).

  6. Stan says:

    Hello and welcome, Sarra! Reading about music probably explains why you see these words quite often. Have you noticed much inconsistency in their spellings and meanings?

  7. Sarra says:

    Not internal inconsistency, no, I don’t think; in spelling nor meaning. I was about to write some more, but then reread the post and recalled that everything is elegantly covered!

  8. Gary says:

    There are actually 2 rules of German involved here, one of spelling and one of phonotactics.

    The spelling rule says that V is pronounced as F in “native” words, as V in “foreign” words. So in Volkswagen, Germans pronounce the V as F, because Volk feels Germanic, but in Venus they pronounce it as V because it feels like an imported word.

    So the basic pronunciation for the V in a “foreign” word like Motiv is V. But there is an overriding rule that says that voiced consonants lose their voicing in syllable-final position. So the V in Motiv is devoiced and pronounced as F, but that in the declined forms like Motive (plural) is pronounced as V.

    I can’t imagine that anybody would advocate importing this F-V alternation when borrowing the word.

  9. Stan says:

    Gary: Thanks very much for this helpful elaboration.

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