I saw it coming as soon as Tim Russert cornered Hillary Clinton into naming Vladimir Putin’s heir. She dodged, ducked and plunged into the now famous: “Med, vay, deva, whatever.” Nobody thought the worse of her. In fact, it drew one of the few sympathetic murmurs in the debate. Russian names are just not something most Americans can do. And if the blogs and online pronunciation guides I’ve checked are any indication, they never will.
One expert on National Public Radio thought that “Medvedev,” the way Russians pronounce it, is simply alien to the American tongue. But admitting that is alien to the American spirit, so there are many places to seek guidance. The Voice of America offers this phonetic spelling: “mehd-V(y)EHD-yehf.” They also provided a voice recording by a man who tried that — in all fairness, he does a pretty good “yehf.” But it’s not a sound likely to make President Dmitri Medvedev turn around….
One of the ways we compensate for the difficulty of foreign names is by adopting our own way of saying them. I once worked with an editor who spoke pretty good French, but used only the feminine article “la,” never “le.” Why, I finally asked? “Oh, it sounds SO much more French that way,” he drawled….
With time, we will learn to cope with Medvedev. We overcame Khrushchev, adopted Rostropovich and cheer hockey players, ballerinas and tennis stars. Medvedev is as elemental as “medved,” Russian for bear. So: Launch with “med” as in “he’s off his med”; put the accent on the “VEH” as in “venomous,” and trail off with a lazy “dev” with just a hint of “z” and “i”: “dziev.” Altogether now: “Med-VEH-dziev.” Whatever.
That “dz” sounds more Polish than Russian to me, but… wev.