MED, VAY, DEVA, WHATEVER.

Serge Schmemann has an amusing column in the NY Times on the subject of American attempts to pronounce Russian names:

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.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    I bet the man who only used la in French stressed it and pronounced it lah, something a French person would never do.

  2. Count me as one who has made a brave attempt at learning how to pronounce “Medvedev” and even recorded my attempts for posterity. The feedback from listeners is that I’m doing it right, but even when I say it right it sounds wrong to me.

  3. Heh. Yeah, you’re doing it pretty well; you could add a little -y- transition in the second syllable (-vye-, almost like following the -v- with “Yay”) for greater authenticity, but I wouldn’t want to add one more thing to the pile that would leave you frozen and unable to speak at all.

  4. michael farris says:

    I’ve been mentally reading it MED-ved-ev (maybe cause the first two syllables look like the Hungarian woprd for bear.
    I’ll try to switch too med-VED-ev but I draw the line at palatalization, an unnecessary complication IMO.

  5. maybe cause the first two syllables look like the Hungarian woprd for bear
    Medve?

  6. There are two things that Americans can never master about Russian pronunciation: the palatal consonants and – yes – the accent (curious fact: no matter which syllable the accent is on, it always gets moved to the wrong one. Medvedev has the second syllable stressed and the tendency is to move it to the first one; yet my name is stressed on the first syllable and, of course, everyone makes it his/her duty to very carefully stress the second one).
    Palatalization is the true bane, though. It’s really so simple – all you have to do is raise the tongue towards the hard palate a little…

  7. Michael Farris says:

    bulbul, picky, picky, picky. A case can made that the first two syllables are medve (at least with initial stress…) But actually, my muddled hed was coming up with a combined Czech-Hungarian form … never mind.
    George, I have no problem with palatalization per se, my second language is Polish (though it works differently there than in Russian). I just see no special need to carry it over into English when it’s not clearly indicated in the romanized form. If there was an official Russian romanization in which e corresponded with Cyrillic …. e, then okay, but as it is….
    And looking the Russian spelling up, if people want an ‘authentic’ pronunciation, shouldn’t the initial syllable be more like ‘mid’?
    Apropos of nothing I see that it’s romanized in Polish as Miedwiediew, in Czech as Medvěděv (why only two ě’s?), Hungarian as Medvegyev and in German as Medwedew.

  8. @George Starostin: I swear, we’re not just being difficult. Medvedev really looks like it has first-syllable stress, and your last name really looks like it has second-syllable stress. Why? I don’t know; an English phoneticist or phonologist might be able to explain. At a guess, it’s because first-syllable stress is the most common pattern for three-syllable words, but requires a third-syllable secondary stress, which “-in” doesn’t usually take? Certainly “Starost” would look like it hard first-syllable stress; it’s the trailing “-in” that messes it up somehow.

  9. michael farris says:

    I agree with both Ran and George. The rules that English speakers use to assign stress to unfamiliar names are such that a literate speaker will almost always end up stressing the wrong syllable of an unfamiliar Russian name. It must be terribly frustrating for Russian speakers who are fluent enough in English to notice it.
    Are Russian speakers any better about stressing the right syllable of unfamiliar foreign (esp English) names?

  10. It’s always been my view that penultimate stress is the default stress in English, with of course many exceptions, mostly in the Germanic vocabulary. My daughter, who can read a lot more words than she can pronounce, serves as a good source of anecdotal evidence for this one.
    But yes, my anglophone Sprachgefuehl calls for initial stress in Medvedev. Go figure.
    As for the etymology, the bear was taboo, so he became “the brown one” in Germanic and “the honey-eater” in Slavic branches, the latter evidently being borrowed into Hungarian as well. Greek arktos represents the original PIE term.

  11. michael,
    aww :) But that’s really interesting, the way you parsed it. Med-ve-dev vs. med-ved-ev. Forgetting the root and the suffix, your way seems much more (for lack of better term) natural since it avoids a VC syllable.
    As would be expected, all our newscasters and analysts pronounce Medvedev’s name with the accent on the first syllable. And still, my Sprachgefühl insists that the second syllable should be stressed. The fact that this is correct somewhat surprises me (see below).
    George,
    There are two things that Americans can never master about Russian pronunciation: the palatal consonants and – yes – the accent
    It’s not just the Americans, my Slavic brother :) I too would have stressed the first syllable in your name. And don’t get me started on Dostoyevsky.
    And as for etymology, I always wondered where the Lithuanian “lokys” falls. I vaguely remember something about “the one who licks (honey)” which would put it in the taboo camp. Anybody knows more?

  12. John Cowan, in the first volume of Oxford’s A Linguistic History of English Donald Ringe makes the interesting suggestion that Germanic “bear” is a normal development from PIE *gwher instead of a euphemism “the brown one.”
    FWIW, tabooistic substitution for “bear” occured in Finnish as well.

  13. caffeind says:

    At least in the US, usual algorithm for pronouncing foreign words is, if it has enough vowels to sound Spanish/Italian, then stress penultimate syllable as in those languages, otherwise it sounds like a Germanic word, stressed on first syllable.
    Also “e” is reduced too often in English, “o” not so much. “Medvodev” would probably get stressed on the o, “Starestin” would be a tossup.
    Japanese words also always seem to come out of English speakers’ mouths stressed on the wrong syllable.
    Not sure why French ultimate stress doesn’t appear more in English pronunciations of foreign words. Most other languages’ words don’t look like French words? English speakers are already too familiar with the French vocab in English? Trying to sound French is too pretentious?

  14. caffeind says:

    For palatalization, maybe the best instruction for Americans would be to put on an accent from one of the areas affected by Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Stressing a word of more than two syllables on the last one seems totally foreign to Modern English (a word like understand is actually a compound of under + stand, so it does not count). Even with two syllables, apart from a few such as the a- words (aboard, aside, etc) and the be- words (behind, below, become, believe, etc) where the second part is often recognizable as an English word, the general tendency is to have stress on the first (= penultimate) syllable, or to have two stresses, as in the pronunciation of the name Côté as KOW-TAY. If the foreign word has 4 syllables, as in European, Mitsubishi, the tendency is to divide the word into two and stress both parts independently (YOU-ro + PEE-an). Words of 3 syllables (apart from compounds as above) seem to hesitate between 1st and 2nd syllable stress, with an increasing tendency towards the 1st syllable, hence MEDvedev, like MEDicine, MEDical. As someone earlier said, this is so unless the word could be Spanish, as in baNAna, goRILLa, but this pattern is extended to vowelful, stressless languages such as Japanese, for instance Suzuki pronounced as Soo-ZOO-ki even though in Japanese the two u‘s are barely audible. The exception for Subaru (SOO-ba-ROO) is probably caused by the middle a (Suba- as in CUba).
    (I don’t mean to pour scorn on English speakers – the way French speakers tend to pronounce English or Italian words, with a slight stress on the last syllable, as in alleGRO, is no less a reflection of the tendencies of the French language).
    I once hard an interview on the radio with a woman from the Caribbean who was reminiscing about her childhood, including her fond memories of her grandMOTHer. I later found out that this was not a Caribbean innovation but the preservation of an old stress pattern with emphasis on the main word (mother) of the compound. Stress shift to the first syllable (GRANDmother) in Standard English obscures the fact that the word includes mother. Similarly the many words of Old French origin (eg Middle English memorie, historie, once stressed on the last syllable, have entirely gone over to stress on the first syllable (which probably had secondary stress when the last one had primary stress).

  16. Lithuanian “lokys” … “the one who licks (honey)”
    I’ve also heard ‘hairy’. Latvian lacis, Old Prussian clokis, from *tlakis (Prussian toponym Tlokunpelk ‘bear swamp’). But I don’t actually know cognates from Baltic (or other IE) that don’t relate to bears.
    For Irish mathghamhain (prefix Mac- to see why there’s a personal stake), < mathgamain, I’ve seen ‘good calf’, that is, maith gamain. However, DIL says there was math already meaning ‘bear’.
    A Jeopardy / QI trick is that Ursus arctos is a brown / grizzly bear and Ursus maritimus is the Artic polar bear.

  17. Yeah, I liked this column, too. There has been a flurry of discussion about this — both Slavicists responding to queries to try to come up with the best way to render a phonetic spelling of Medvedev that will produce the closest authentic pronunciation, and lots of breast-beaters ranting about how terrible Americans are because we never get foreign names right. I always point out that Russians have not pronounced the US president’s name right in 8 years (he’s Mr Boosh) and that they pronounce our first president as something like VashinkTON, stress on last syllable. We have different phonetic systems and do the best we can.
    There is a tendency in Russian for the stress to migrate or be placed in the middle of the word. FLOR-i-da becomes Flor-I-da and MAR-ket-ing becomes mar-KET-ing (although the latter is in flux, with English-speaking Russians giving the “authentic” stress). But it is only a tendency, as we see with Mr Vash-ink-TON.
    If you folks want, I can dig up the BBC’s explanation for what phonetic rendering they chose and why.

  18. There is no “z” sound at all at the end of his name. It should be more of “dyev”, since the Russian letter е is pronounced as “ye.”
    It’s probably worth nothing we never actually overcame Khrushchev…we basically butchered it. Americans pronounce “Khrush-chyev” with a long e instead of the correct “Khrush-chyov.”
    Of course, without years of Russian training, many words and names are extremely difficult to pronounce.

  19. I too would have stressed the first syllable in your name.
    The first syllable is stressed in his name. Saved by your Slovak instincts!

  20. Allow me to grumble that the Mongol Cyrillic alphabet has about six or eight letters useless in Mongol but necessary in Russian.
    And the Mongol Uighur alphabet is the most godawful thing ever, though it looks very dramatic and would be beautifully economical if the words really sounded the way they’re written.

  21. michael farris says:

    “the Mongol Uighur alphabet is the most godawful thing ever”
    worse than Tibetan spelling?

  22. Back during the coup I thought, well at least if Pugo gets in people will be able to pronounce his name – and damned if Dan Rather didn’t call him Puggo (rhyming with Sluggo) that same day!

  23. michael farris says:

    Pugo is too obvious, so the crafty anglophone assumes it’s a trap and goes all counter-intuitive.
    That might also be why a few years ago when the segway was unveiled the Polish media decided that it was pronounced SEDGE-way (polish sedżuej).

  24. David Marjanović says:

    “the honey-eater” in Slavic branches

    Not the honey-knower, the one who knows where the honey is and where his /v/ comes from?

    Greek arktos represents the original PIE term.

    Yes (judging from Hittite hartagas) — but haven’t some suggested that even this actually means “destroyer”?

    in the first volume of Oxford’s A Linguistic History of English Donald Ringe makes the interesting suggestion that Germanic “bear” is a normal development from PIE *gwher instead of a euphemism “the brown one.”

    And what does that mean? Inquiring minds want to know…!

    And the Mongol Uighur alphabet is the most godawful thing ever, though it looks very dramatic and would be beautifully economical if the words really sounded the way they’re written.

    Of course, they were pronounced that way when that alphabet was introduced. Genghis actually was [qaʁan] and not [xaːn]. Then the spelling froze, and the result was like Scottish Gaelic (Irish recently eliminated some of the silent dh at least).

    worse than Tibetan spelling?

    No. But even Tibetan at least follows rules, as far as I’m aware. English does so only “over 85 % of the time“…

    There is no “z” sound at all at the end of his name. It should be more of “dyev”, since the Russian letter е is pronounced as “ye.”

    Well, yes and no. Russian palatalization often bleeds over into some amount of affrication.
    ————————-
    Back to the topic. I once read a few pages of a translation of Kerenski’s autobiography. The good man complains that his fellow native speakers automatically stress him on the second syllable, while the first is correct, because the name derives from the river Kerenka which, just as surprisingly, is stressed on the first syllable, too. Church Slavonic used the whole inventory of Greek diacritics; Russian should really have kept one accent IMHO.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Not sure why French ultimate stress doesn’t appear more in English pronunciations of foreign words. Most other languages’ words don’t look like French words? English speakers are already too familiar with the French vocab in English? Trying to sound French is too pretentious?

    No idea. In German, French borrowings generally keep their final stress.

  26. “the Mongol Uighur alphabet is the most godawful thing ever”

    worse than Tibetan spelling?

    Tibetan spelling is not as bad as Mongol Uyghur alphabet: at least Tibetan spells out all vowel distinctions, IIRC only two or three vowels have undergone change from the indicated pronunciation! They just happen to have more silent letters… Most initials can be simplified to the actual pronunciation relatively easily (after all, just dumping extra letters! How hard is that?)
    Mongol Uyghur alphabet suffers from the inability to disambiguate all vowels, and even worse, to indicate some of the vowels you essentially do what English does with its vowel, so think about that!

  27. “Most godawful thing ever” was emotive, not descriptive, but I see that I’ve gotten some support.
    I thought it was beautiful, albeit ambiguous, before I realized that it misrepresented the actual sounds of modern Mongol.

  28. in the first volume of Oxford’s A Linguistic History of English Donald Ringe makes the interesting suggestion that Germanic “bear” is a normal development from PIE *gwher instead of a euphemism “the brown one.”
    And what does that mean? Inquiring minds want to know…!

    We got either “hot, warm” (Pokorny
    493 (732/14)) or “to make angry, to provoke”. And then (Pokorny 493 (731/13)) there’s *ehwer meaning “wild animal”.

  29. “Most godawful thing ever” was emotive, not descriptive, but I see that I’ve gotten some support.

    I thought it was beautiful, albeit ambiguous, before I realized that it misrepresented the actual sounds of modern Mongol.

    Well, it would be great if it *just* misrepresent modern pronunciations…
    Uyghur letters that Mongol borrow is like using Rune to represent middle or modern English: woefully inadequate.
    Mongolian exercises vowel harmony so it has two series of vowels: front and back. For rounded vowels there is obviously height distinction just as many language would. So, in modern Mongolian, there are o/u vs ö/ü. However all these rounded vowels are represented by one glyph at most times! Only at the finals that an extra stroke is added to the o/u glyph to tell that it is ö/ü.
    Ironically, the Unicode model for Mongolian script encodes all four phonetically even though two would suffice graphemically! See Andrew West criticism here.

  30. Allow me to digress from language to politics for one moment, in order to vent a bit of multiculturalist indignation.
    So Hillary gets a “sympathetic murmur” for butchering a Russian name, and Barack Obama in an African caftan was said to be off-putting. What’s wrong with this picture?

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