RUSSIAN NAMES REDUX.

I’ve complained about misaccenting of Russian (and other) names before, and I’m happy to see a similar complaint at Language Log (by guest blogger Barbara Partee):

All through the television coverage of US Open tennis tournament this year, the names of many of the Russian women tennis players were pronounced incorrectly. I recently hunted around on the Internet for anything I could find about it, and found this article by Neil Schmidt in the Cincinnati Enquirer (August 18). The article includes a pronunciation guide, which is taken directly from the WTA’s own pronunciation guide.
Amazingly, more than half the names are listed with the stress on the wrong syllable…

The kicker is that “the WTA stands by its pronunciation guide” and suggests that “many players might adopt Americanized pronunciations when they speak with foreign reporters.” A shame if true; it’s not really any harder to say sha-RAH-pava than “Sha-ra-POH-vuh,” and why wouldn’t you want your name said correctly?


Let me take this occasion to once more recommend Say How? A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures, even though none of the mistakes I mentioned have been fixed. Foreign stuff they’re iffy on, but the English-language names seem accurate.

Comments

  1. I’ve [tactfully, I think] attempted to correct a guy’s pronunciation of Anna Kurnikova’s name at a cocktail reception recently (you CAN’T imagine how he sounded) and got the response “this is America, baby. You have to follow our pronunciation rules”
    If even WTA “stands by it’s pronunciation guide”, no wonder.

  2. Cryptic Ned says:

    One problem with pronouncing Anna Kurnikova’s name is that 100% of the news media mysteriously adds turns the “u” into “ou”. Even someone who knows what transliterations of Russian correspond to doesn’t know whether that means “o” or “u”.

  3. Our local grocery store assigned the cashiers a new responsibility: to look up the buyer’s name on the receipt and to say “Thank you, Mr. X”. Well, my last name is IsAeva, and all the cashiers unanimously pronounce it as “IsaEva”. I never corrected them — what for? My theory is that my last name somehow looks Japanese to them, hence the stress.

  4. My last name is Slavic in origin. I am aware that people from East Europe pronounce it quite differently from the way I (and the rest of the English-speaking world) pronounce it.
    But any English-speaker reading my name will pronounce it the same way, and my family’s been in the New World over four generations already.
    So Tatyana, if I meet you at a party and tell you my last name, I hope you don’t don’t (tactfully) correct my pronunciation (you CAN’T imagine how I sound!).

  5. Mr.ook_boo, there is no danger of us meeting at a party, so “no worries”, as my American friend would say.
    May I point out though to the difference between you and Anna Kurnikova – she doesn’t have four generations of mispronunciations of her name behind her, the memory of CORRECT sound is still fresh, so to speak – and in my barbarian country of origin it is considered impolite to personally correct foreigners who mispronounce your name; however, it is polite to do so for somebody else.
    I try to pronounce somebody’s name as close to the way they call themselves as possible; strange as it may sound to you, people from far away countries (f.ex., my Indian and Japanese coworkers) usually appreciate the effort.

  6. Ms. Tatyana,
    I should have put the ;) symbol at the end of my post. ;)
    There are actually two ways of looking at it. I’ve spent most of my career overseas, and generally I change the way I pronounce my name based on local preferences and habits (unless I’m in a bad mood, in which case I use the English pronounciation). As you say, coworkers appreciate the effort.

  7. Michael Farris says:

    I’d take a two-track approach, the names of athletes and some other public figures are usually disseminated(sp?) by writing and it can happen that announcers have to talk about someone without having gotten a chance to know how that person pronounces their name. I know that the relevant sports federation should provide them with this information, but I suspect that the people involved there might not know either, and they probably prefer consistency over accuracy.
    On the other hand, in the flesh with co-workers etc, it’s only good manners to pronounce the person’s name the way they do (or as close as one’s mouth and hearing allow).
    People do differ of course in how much they’re comfortable in changing their names.
    In the US I pronounce my last name Ferris (as in the wheel – I pronounce marry, Mary and merry identically). But a few years ago I realized that pronouncing it ['faris] in Poland (at least in Polish) made life easier in bureaucratic terms and that’s what I do.
    Trivia tidbits on women’s last names in Slavic languages (a sample, there’s much more).
    I’ve noticed that no matter the field, Russian women’s last names (if they end in a -eva, -ova or -skaja) tend to receive penultimate stress. It must sound bizarre to Russian speakers, but it’s consistent I guess.
    In Poland, the Russian ending (-skaja) is always abbreviated as -ska so that Galina Višnevskaja becomes Galina Wiśniewska. (I’d never noticed the resemblance before and probably never would have, I’m just! that! dumb!)
    There’s a popular singer in Poland who’s from Zaolzia (tiny Polish speaking area in Czech Republic) and she bills herself as Halina Mlynková which is neither Polish nor Czech, the Czech would be Mlýnková and the Polish would be plain old Młynek. Polish gave up the official use of -owa (wife of), and -ówna (daughter of) long ago and Polish speakers find the Czech practice of slapping -ová on all kinds of women’s names to be hilarious (as do I, though who could help but love a language where the medicine woman was known as Doktorka Quinnová?).

  8. Michael (by the way, many thanks for your contribution to the Ebonics thread): I once spent a few minutes figuring out a caption in a Czech illustrated book, “Podobizna paní Monetové” (or something like that). But that’s the logic of the Czech language. Likewise, Lithuanians may tell you Markas Tvenas wrote “Tomo Sojerio nuotykiai.” (Lithuanian doesn’t seem to be able to handle the distinction between Tom and Thomas.) But these languages have a method to their eccentricity, while American English doesn’t. Surely no American who has heard of Akhmatova would call her AkhmatOva, right?
    If only Russian speakers could file a class action suit for all the pain of hearing Russian names mispronounced… Even the simplest Russian surnames get mangled rather unmercifully–consider “Lebedeva” for one. At least first names can be easily Anglicized–I prefer to be called Alex rather than hear the second syllable stressed in “Alexei.”

  9. I wouldn’t say American English has no method to its eccentricity. (I’m Canadian, but I include my dialect under the umbrella of American English for this purpose.)
    We simply usually stress the penlultimate syllable in names we’re unfamilliar with. The exception is in names ending in “ov”, where we stress the final syllable.
    Hence, AkhmatOva, and KurnikOva, etc. It works for non-European names too, like MubArak, OsAka, MuhAmmad, or KhatAmi. Whether the pronunciation is correct or not is another issue entirely, but there is a method to the madness :)
    Of course there’s probably a million exceptions to this rule, but generally when pronouncing an unfammiliar name this is was we do.
    What I want to know is when SaddAm Hussein suddenly became SAddam Hussein, and who precipitated the change.

  10. I can’t imagine an Anglophone saying “AkhmatOva,” but if that’s a trend, it serves her well for being the most overrated Russian poet ever!
    Stressing the penultimate syllable must be a recent trend, and it doesn’t apply to French loans–it’s the British who say GArage and CAfé while Americans seem to opt for the kind-of-genuine gaRAGE and caFÉ.
    It makes sense to spell “Kournikova” so the first syllable rhymes with “tour.” If her name were “Kournakova” (as some misspell), the stress would indeed move to the next-to-last syllable. She ought to marry and take her poor hubbie’s name to spare our ears.

  11. “Surely no American who has heard of Akhmatova would call her AkhmatOva, right?”
    I’m a Engleesh1.0 speaker, but that is the way I would have pronounced it up until now.
    I think this whole Forren names is more subtle than has been acknowledged so far – I personally hate it when someone (typically a newsreader)’s desire for accuracy leads them to code-switche to the full phonologie of the source language in such a way that I can’t make out quite what they said, having no command of such a phonology. It would be inappropriate (to my tiny mind) to overdo the palatalisation of Russian consonants, for example, if nominally speaking Engleesh to an Engleesh speaker. (I don’t know how I would pronounce, say, Skellefteå, in Engleesh, though, and it is probably for the good that I am unlikely to need to.)
    But getting the stress on the natively-stressed (“right”) syllable of a Russian name in a language with a similar stress system, such as English, seems reasonable enough, when the names are still taken to be Forren. If any of said tennis players took FDRUSIAN nationality, I would expect (passively; not “require”) that they’d get used to the Engleesh default, because educating the universe one by one is a task apt to daunt ever the most enthusiastic.
    The BBC, incidentally, has a pronunciation unit for just these eventualities. The (eclectic) DJ John Peel used to use it to get the names right for all the crazy stuff he played, until the introduction of an internal market system meant that he couldn’t afford to.

  12. I’ve just noticed a mistake on Barbara Partee’s list. Alina Jidkova is ah-LEE-nah zhid-KAW-vah (or zhid-KO-vah), not yid-*. And the ending schwah is slightly closer to “ah” (or, perhaps, the Southern English vowel in “cut”) than to any other sound.
    Des, I assumed most people learn of Russian poets either from their enlightened professors or from books on Russian lit, which should include pronunciation guides. Then I realized Russian book on English lit have no pron guides either. Other than that, I quite agree: stress is often transferable but phonetics, hardly. Back in the 1980s, Voice of America Russian announcers (native Russian speakers) used to pronounce Anglosphere names natively (to the extent of their English capabilities)–госсекретарь James Baker заявил, что Соединенные Штаты blah blah blah–which I found annoying.
    But the Russian language itself has a peculiar way of dealing with foreign names. Recent entrants get good treatment, but time-tested (mis)pronunciations are honored, too. Take the Chad State for one. Personally, I don’t think I’ll say (in Russian that is) ФлОрида instead of ФлорИда, the good old Spanish Florída.

  13. I’ve heard my name pronounced in many ways, usually [bjo(r)n], rarely (thankfully) [bdZo(r)n]. I don’t mind the first, and that’s how I’d usually present myself to forrin strangers. I really like it when people do the umlaut, [bj9rn]. But the ‘proper’ pronounciation is something like [pj9tn0] (n0 is an unvoiced n, this is how it’s represented in the Icelandic Sampa standard, I don’t know if there is a more ‘international’ way of doing it. Perhaps not as it’s not a very international sound. Except for when it’s used for snorting), which I tried to teach to everyone I met the first time I went abroad at the age of 14. Much searching of kleenexes ensued for the nasal plosively challenged. So I don’t bother any more.
    As for Russian pronunciations our English phonetics teacher made us look up the English and Russian names of various places once where there were some interesting discrepancies. The only one I vaguely remember, and correct me if I’m wrong, was Vladivostok. In Icelandic VLA-di-vo-stok, in English vla-di-VO-stok, but Russian vla-di-vo-STOK? There are many more of these, I’m sure most of you know of them.

  14. [Alexei:] Des, I assumed most people learn of Russian poets either from their enlightened professors or from books on Russian lit, which should include pronunciation guides.
    Notwithstanding the coefficient of should-but-don’t, I picked up my pretence at literacy from newspapers and less specialised books. It would be neat if IPA transcriptions became routine even in newspapers, but I’m not holding my breath.
    Björn, is that really [pjøtn̥] or is it really (being outrageously pedantique) more like [b̥jøtn̥]?
    (Does everyone’s browser speak IPA with diacritiques, yet? Lynx does, but this old Opera it do not. Bad browser! No, needless to say, biscuit!)

  15. Well, the old standard said that it was an unvoiced [b], but isn’t that really just the same as unaspirated [p]? That’s how it’s transcribed today, I’m not sure how long it’s been since it was changed officially, can’t be more than a couple of years. Btw, how do you do those IPA thingies? Looks good in Firefox 1.0PR, and makes me want to do the same.

  16. I use a transcriber which eats (at the moment only) Kirshenbaum ASCII IPA and emits the HTML escaped versions of the Unicode characters. I am, after all, a programmer by trade. (And therefore the code is a steaming pile of mess, written in Python. If anyone wants to deal with it on those terms, let me know – it’s not ready for distribution, for sure.)
    And, no, unvoiced and unaspirated [p] isn’t necessarily [b] – many phonologists argue that the pertinent distinction (in Engleesh) is tense/lax rather than voicing or aspiration. (Consider “appetite”/”ability” to demonstrate that it isn’t aspiration in general.)
    Danish, as ever the most phonologically radical dialect of Germanique, makes no tense/lax or +/- voice distinction for stops and relies on aspiration. Icelandique, I do not know from.

  17. I personally hate it when someone (typically a newsreader)’s desire for accuracy leads them to code-switche to the full phonologie of the source language
    Me too. I think of this as the “Nee-cah-RRRAH-ghwah” syndrome, from a mid-’80s epidemic.
    Alina Jidkova is ah-LEE-nah zhid-KAW-vah (or zhid-KO-vah), not yid-
    Thank you! I was left completely at sea by that transcription, wondering why anyone would use J- for /y/ outside of Germany (and I assume Germans would write Jidkowa).
    Björn: Thanks very much for the lesson in proper pronunciation of your name; I have a fair amount of Icelandic reading capability left over from a course in Old Norse, but the modern pronunciation is, shall we say, not intuitively obvious from the spelling.

  18. The extent people who live outside of their native countries are willing to change their personal names differ, as people’s personal adaptability differs. I’ve a former coworker living here in US who changed her beautiful Polish name Evelina Belenitska (in transliteration from Russian) to Eva Bell since not a one in fifty would pronounce it right. And I had a French classmate Maryse at FIT whose last name I can’t spell (and don’t want to embarass myself with attempted rendition here) – she wouldn’t change it neither after a marriage to a Bulgarian 20 yrs ago nor to the Anglicized version after living in US for 7 yrs.
    But that fact shouldn’t prevent others from correct pronounciation efforts.
    Alexei, marriage is a 2-sided coin: I happened to catch a glimpse of the Oprah world the other day (yes, I did, so sue me) – she was talking to the women from the audience (sneaking a glance to the draft in hand) and said ” Please forgive me I will call you Barbara, you last name looks mingled after “Bob” – and poor victim replied “It’s Bobychek. I know, it’s terrible; I’ve married into one”[That was enough for me to change the channel]
    And don’t think literary celebrities are excluded from the trend: I heard incredibly erudite person (who devoted entire academic year exclusively studying Russian literature) pronouncing Bulgakov as BOlgakOff.
    As to the first names – need I tell you the usual rendition of my name is Ta-ta-nia? The champion so far is a Kansas native who calls me KechYAna.
    Count von Bladet: what’s Skellefteå?
    Bjorn (don’t know how to do umlauts, sorry) – so, I should to basically exhale on “n” thru the nose?
    And you’re absolutely right about Vladivostok.

  19. Tatyana: Skellefteå is a town in Sweden. It’s the Swedish “sk” followed by a front vowel that’s the problem – it is (in most flavours of Swedish) an odd sound to the Engleesh ear. (Unvoiced simultaneous velar and alveolar fricative with heavy lip rounding, for those playing along at home.)
    And I will draw a discrete veil over the time it took to dissuade my fingers from pronouncing your name “Tatanya”. (They still can’t be entirely trusted even now.)

  20. I guess it’d sound like Sсhellefteo in German, although I have no idea about the stress.

  21. Cryptic Ned says:

    And don’t think literary celebrities are excluded from the trend: I heard incredibly erudite person (who devoted entire academic year exclusively studying Russian literature) pronouncing Bulgakov as BOlgakOff.
    Hmm, I’ve heard maybe twenty people say the name Bulgakov, and they all said it that way. We have pretty much figured out how to say “Nabokov”, but that’s where it ends.
    In English we don’t have words that end in unstressed syllables ending in “v”. Basically, if a foreign name ends in a consonant, we accent that syllable. If it ends in a vowel, we accent the penultimate syllable. If it ends in “ich”, we accent the third-to-last syllable.

  22. What constitutes a “foreign” name depends on your frame of reference. I know that “Howard” seems to be an extraordinarly hard thing to pronounce for native Chinese speakers. It sounds like it hurts. I feel I should ask them to call my “Xiao-Wei” or something.
    An old friend once scored a double-LP pronounciation guide to classical composers for classical DJs. Two solid hours of names being pronounced, one after another, alphabetically. So you’d get “Ned Rorem, Camille Saint-Saëns, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arnold Schönberg” one after another, pronounced idiomatically. Quite surreal.

  23. I enjoyed watching a clip of an old French Open where the Australian tennis player Rod Laver’s name was pronounced Rrrrrrod LaVAIRRRRR by the umpire. (Similarly the cricketer Ian Botham was allegedly known as “Iron Bottom” in India and Pakistan).
    UK newsreaders will make an effort to pronounce French names correctly but, generally, any other nationality can forget it. One oddity is the pronunciation of Pinochet as PinoSHAY, not Pinoshet (logic: it looks French so it must sound French). IIRC Fujimori presented similar pronunciation problems (I think there has been a thread on his name either here or at another blog).
    I have to admit my knowledge of Russian name pronunciation is not what it should be, even though I’ve dabbled in the language.

  24. That’s been my observation also (about the French names in US). So, Alexei, you can expect your last name pronounced with stress on the last syllable, in a French manner, as in Jacques Pepin.
    Oh, and another first name disaster: I feel sorry for the guys with the “slav” names. All Bronislavs, Svyatoslavs, Vyacheslavs inevitably become “Slavas”. Which is to say when I hear how grey-haired (in his case white-*) Mstislav Rastropovich is called a 5 y.o. nick name, I actually shudder (and he, probably, does too).

  25. Don’t Chileans say pee-naw-CHEY? A tough name. Someone told me Poles used to call Gen. Jaruzelski, the last Communist ruler, “Nasz Pinoczet.” That is, Pee-NAW-chet as the language dictates.
    Russians have always rendered the General’s name as pee-naw-CHET. Spanish names fit well with Russian (except perhaps la provincia de Jujuy and la ciudad de Juigalpa). But some Anglo-American names… can someone tell me what’s wrong with the name Heather? Is it pronounced the same as the plant? does it not rhyme with “weather”?

  26. I’m an American with a French name, “Favier,” which my family has pronounced for three or four generations to rhyme with “behavior.” I find Americans are far more likely nowadays than a generation ago to try to give it a French pronunciation. I’m not sure what they come up with sounds particularly French, most of the time — usually they come down like a ton of bricks on the second syllable, which they pronounce in a remarkable variety of ways. But I appreciate the effort.
    I can’t imagine being offended that people don’t know how to pronounce my name. Why should they? I’m confronted with names every day that I don’t know how to pronounce, and I’ve had the luxury of spending years dabbling in languages.
    It also seems to me that when there isn’t a standard way to pronounce a name in your own language, even when you hear it accurately (not something every untrained person can do) you have to wing it to come up with some approximation in the phonemes and rhythms of your own speech that a) won’t butcher the name too badly but b) won’t be one of those “code switches” referred to above, which leaves your listeners completely at sea. This wouldn’t be an easy job even for a trained linguist; I’m not surprised that your average sportscaster botches it.
    What really irritates me is when there IS a standard pronunciation of a foreign name, and some officious lobby tries to replace it. What the devil was wrong with “Peking”? Of course it’s not pronounced as the Chinese pronounce it, but was it that much further off than “Beijing”? Not to my ears. At least we all said “Peking” the same way. I’ve heard half a dozen pronunciations of “Beijing” — from “bee-jean” to “buy-jang” — and it’s hard for me to see that as a big win either for intelligibility or for authenticity. And now there are people going about convinced Peking and Beijing are two different cities.

  27. Michael Farris says:

    “But some Anglo-American names… can someone tell me what’s wrong with the name Heather? Is it pronounced the same as the plant? does it not rhyme with “weather”?”
    For me, the name of the plant does rhyme with weather. Is there another pronunciation I’ve been ignorant of?

  28. Alexei- I swear I heard a Chilean pronounce it “Pinoshet” on a news programme (but maybe my memory is playing tricks). I do remember the interviewer completely ignored his native pronunciation and merrily went on saying Pinoshay. Heather rhymes with weather round these parts.
    Tatyana- how about your name as pronounced by Monsieur Triquet in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”? Every syllable meticulously enunciated a la francaise: “Brillez, brillez toujours, bel-le Tat-y-a-NA”.

  29. The only instance a French[wo]man called me by first name was something that sounded like Tatie (stress on 2nd syllable), and it was charming.
    I’d accept the classics’ version, too.
    In fact, I don’t mind anything, really, as long as people don’t tell ME what is the right pronounciation of my name and than call me Titania…

  30. Alexei: Heather the name is like the plant, and as Michael says, it rhymes with “weather.”
    J. Cassian: It couldn’t very well be -shet, because Spanish-speakers don’t use the /sh/ sound. I’m pretty sure it’s -chet.
    dale: Your “Peking/Beijing” rant is music to my ears.

  31. Crispix Attacks says:

    Alexei- I swear I heard a Chilean pronounce it “Pinoshet” on a news programme (but maybe my memory is playing tricks). I do remember the interviewer completely ignored his native pronunciation and merrily went on saying Pinoshay. Heather rhymes with weather round these parts.
    What else would it rhyme with?

  32. Thank you all for keeping me sane. Endangering my sanity was the fact that I have many times seen and heard “Heather” rendered in Russian, by Russian translators and dubbers, as Хитер (Khiter: KHEE-terr)–so that “Heather” and “heater” get mapped into the same Russian “word.” I started thinking I was missing something–perhaps there’s been some kind of vowel shift going on in the US in the recent years.
    I used to think Dalhousie U. was either in Québec or the French-speaking part of the Maritimes. Hearing me pronounce “Dalhousie” like “jalousie”, my Anglophone Canadian friend nearly choked with laughter.
    “Tatiana” is a simple, easy to pronounce Latin name, and “Tatyana” is only a slight variation, isn’t it?

  33. Ceaucescu instead of Ceauşescu – that one always annoys me.

  34. Cryptic Ned says:

    Well, that’s a common mistake, J. Cassian, since English-speakers pronounce Ceausescu as “Chow-Ches-Ku”.

  35. Ooh… following your link, Hat, that Peking/Beijing post of yours looks strangely familiar, and I suspect that my rant is actually more a memory of yours than a creation of mine.
    Imperial memory. Sheesh, I wonder if I’ve really invented *anything* that’s in my head?

  36. could anybody tell me how to pronounce the russian surname kamynin? i know a guy who’se last name is that, and i never like to pronounce his it because i’m afraid i will offend him. please help!

  37. It’s basically kah-MEE-nin; if you want to get a little closer, you can say kah-MWEE-ñin, where the -w- keeps your lips from spreading for the first i and the ñ is a palatalized n (canyon is the closest thing we have in English). But getting the stress on the right (middle) syllable is the main thing — he’ll appreciate it!

  38. (Er, by “first i” I meant the y.)

  39. Does anyone know of a place that can help me with the pronunciation of a Russian first name?

  40. What’s the name?

  41. Hi i was wondering how would you pronounce the name Znalezniak? i think its Lithuanian

  42. Gene Fellner says:

    It looks Polish to me. All the names I’ve run across that end in -niak have been Polish.
    The accent in Polish is invariant, on the penultimate, and since “ia” is a diphthong, that means the accent is on the E.
    However, without really knowing the language but having studied a bit of its phonetics, I can’t escape the suspicion that the L is supposed to have a slash through it that turns it into an English W sound.
    That would make it zna-WEZ-nyak if I’m right about the L.
    As in Cardinal Woitila, the recently deceased Pope, his name is pronounced voy-TI-wa. Or Lech Walesa, the hero of the Solidarity movement, pronounced va-WEN-sa. (There’s a backward cedille under that E that makes it EN.) Slashes through the L in both cases.
    The Polish character set is one of the more difficult ones to acquire and display.

  43. Googling turns up a znaleźniak, with an accent over the z, which would make it zna-LEZH-nyak (with zh like the s in leisure), if the name was originally spelled the same way.

  44. my great grand father was from chudnov ukraine and was a orthodox jew. his name was nathan muavina. anybody with any info on how to find out more about the area he was from or what my last name would be if it was not shortened to mark! IS NATHAN A REAL RUSSIAN NAME? WOULD MY LAST NAME BE MURAVIN?

  45. Just generally on the pronunciation of Russian names, and I’m no linguist, has nobody remarked that in many cases the last consonant like “ova” at the end of a Russian woman’s name is in many ways similar to the “son” at the end of, say, Robertson. And there are of course many other examples of endings like this for both sexes.
    We would never say Rob-ert-SON would we? So why say Sha-rap-OVA? I’ve seen the remarks about the WTA and how they adopt the pronunciation favoured by the individual. But they must realise that often the indivdual has given up all hope that the public in their country of adoption (eg USA) will have the faintest grasp of the principles of pronuncuation.

  46. Brian, English stress has nothing to do with Russian. The stress is sometimes on the -ov (-ova is the feminine form), sometimes on what precedes. In fact, Ivanov can go either way; some say i-va-NOF, some i-VA-nof. You just have to know.

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