Experimental and theoretical investigations of the infrared-active, polarization-dependent phonon frequencies of cubic boron nitride films have been performed in light of recent claims that large frequency shifts during initial nucleation are the result of strain caused by highly nonequilibrium growth conditions. We show that the formation of small, separate grains of cubic boron nitride during the initial growth leads to a frequency shift in the infrared-active transverse-optic mode, polarized normal to the substrate, which is opposite in sign and twice the magnitude of the shift for modes polarized parallel to the substrate. In contrast, film strain causes a frequency shift in the mode polarized normal to the substrate, which is much smaller in magnitude than the frequency shift for modes polarized parallel to the substrate. Normal and off-normal incidence absorption measurements, performed at different stages of nucleation and growth, show that large frequency shifts in the transverse-optic-phonon modes during the initial stage of growth are not compatible with the expected effects of strain, but are in large part due to nucleation of small isolated cubic BN grains which coalesce to form a uniform layer. Numerical results from a simple model of island nucleation and growth are in good agreement with experimental results.