One of the drawbacks of knowing Russian is constantly hearing Russian names butchered by English speakers. It doesn’t bother me so much to hear KROOSH-chef for Khrushchev; let’s face it, khroo-SHCHOF is hard for English speakers to say. But when the correct form is as easy as the wrong one, I get annoyed. The artist Rodchenko isn’t road-CHENko but ROAD-chenko. The director Kozintsev is KOH-zintsef. And the recently deceased mathematician Olga Ladyzhenskaya (more math details here) is lah-DEE-zhenskaya, not (as I just heard a radio announcer say) ladee-ZHEN-skaya.

Addendum. A native Russian speaker informs me in a comment that the family names Kozintsev and Ladyzhenski have has an alternate pronunciations with penultimate stress (koZINtsef, ladyZHENski), so I withdraw a large portion of my indignation; those particular people used the pronunciations I indicate, but if a native Russian speaker wouldn’t automatically know how to pronounce the names, I can’t really expect American announcers to (although it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that whoever’s in charge of telling them how to say things might be able to use the same references I do to find out).

Further addendum. I happened to open my collection of Bella Akhmadulina at a poem called Цветений очерёдность (Tsvetenii ocheryodnost’) ‘Sequence of flowering’ and found a mention of ладыжинский овраг (ladyzhinskii ovrag), the Ladyzhino ravine. This confirmed the stress and indicated that the family name is geographical in origin. [I learn from Tatyana that the name is not in fact geographical, but comes from lodyzhka ‘ankle.’] And how do I know the name of the village is Ladyzhino rather than Ladyzhin or Ladyzhinka (both in southwestern Ukraine)? Because she’s written a more recent poem, Окаём и луна (Okayom i luna) ‘Nogoodnik and moon,’ in a sequence of new poems published in Znamya 1999, No. 7, wherein she revisits the name (I quote the third, fifth, and half the eighth stanzas of a long poem):

Ему родней — околыш, околоток.
Воспомню, окаянью вопреки,
окно во снег и журавель–колодец
в Ладыжине, в деревне близ Оки…

Моей исповедальною зимою
стремглав одолевала я овраг
Ладыжинский, давно воспетый мною —
подобострастно, а не кое–как…

Что мне до них! От октября до мая
в Ладыжино мой силуэт сновал…

For kin he had a hatband and a precinct.
In spite of sinfulness I recollect
a window on the snow and a well-crane
in Ladyzhino, a village near the Oka…

In my confessional winter
headlong I conquered the ravine
of Ladyzhino, which I long since hymned —
obsequiously, but not carelessly…

What did they matter to me! From October to May
my silhouette rushed to Ladyzhino…

(Incidentally, in a former life I was a math major, but the kind of math Ladyzhenskaya did—partial differential equations, with a great deal of importance for fluid dynamics—was of absolutely no interest to me. All my life I’ve tried to avoid anything with practical applications.)


  1. jean-pierre says

    “forgive them, o Lord, for they know not what they do.”

  2. Well, French announcers used to say Djeune Meydjeur when they meant John Major, and George Bush is Dzordzas Busas (with carons where appropriate) in Lithuanian. To say nothing of Russian adaptations like RamzAy for Ramsay. You transcribe Russian names with a certain accent in mind; for a British or Australian audience, I’d write RODchenko; for Southerners, RAWDchenko. LadyZHENskaya suggests an interesting decomposition: lad + zhensky; should be a find for Freudian linguists.

  3. unreal_undead says

    Well, I guess one of the reasons is ambiguity of the language itself – e.g. one of my friends (I’m native Russian speaker) pronounces his surname as kohZINtsev, so I would read the director’s one the same way if it were printed without explicit stress mark (and stress marks are rarely used); and both renderings of mathematician’s name seem “correct” to me – probably both are used by people with the same surname (although each person definitely knows which one is right for him/her). So errors of this kind are quite frequent in Russia when someone reads a list of names (teacher during the first lesson, officer in the army etc.), so IMHO you shouldn’t blame English dictors much.

  4. Unreal: Thanks very much for your enlightening comment. I am of course aware that some family names occur with different stresses (Ivanov being a notorious example), but I didn’t realize this was the case for Kozintsev and Ladyzhenski. I still think the announcers should be given the proper pronunciations, but I can’t very well hold American announcers to higher standards than native Russian speakers, so I’ll cut them some slack (and add an addendum to my post).

  5. the one i wonder about most is Tsvetaeva…

  6. Steve Harrington says

    Yes and there is a decent French restaurant in midtown Manhattan that serves Russian BorshT [german variant] of Borsh…
    I love the way people butcher Pew-tin or Poot’n and just where is the accent in that enemy of the Rus called Chechni-YA?
    Otoh, I love the occasional russian english on the street in Brooklyn or is it Broeklin?

  7. How about KourniKOva?
    It should be hard for an ordinary English speaker to understand why the stress in Petrova and Klimova falls on different syllables.

  8. graywyvern: If you’re wondering about the pronunciation, it’s tsve-TIE-eva (with all the vowels except the stressed one as vague as you like).

  9. Perhaps it has something to do with not using the cyrillic script. Many English speakers butcher Korean names as well because of the poor transliteration into the roman alphabet.
    My pronunciation of Korean names is good, because I have learned to speak, read, & write it. perhaps Rodchenko should be spelled Roadchenko, I didn’t know the proper pronunciation before this so I just followed my intuition.

  10. English pretty much slaps the accent on the second to last syllable of every long Russian name. It’s a reasonable effort, I guess, and has the admirable quality of consistency.
    While I like to feel that in a pinch I could pronounce such names properly, I also think that there is something to be said for the British insouciance of pronouncing everything in English fashion, provided you’re speaking to an English-speaking audience. I love the idea of “MY-lan” Italy, and cringe when acquaintances refer to “MiLAno”, but I tend to just say “mi-LAN” because I lack spine. And bring back bomBAY, darnit.

  11. hat – I’ve long been wondering whether the chess great Alekhine should be pronounced al-YO-khin… any thoughts?

  12. unreal_undead says

    paul: Definitely so. ‘O’ after palatilized consonant (denoted by cyrillic ‘ё’ letter in Russian) is always stressed (although printed texts generally don’t use this letter and use ‘е’ instead – so Алёхин becomes Алехин and you can’t deduce right pronounciation from it. Unfortunately Web loaned this tradition – from top 10 pages for Алёхин found by only one consistently uses ё letter in the name – two pages use both, others just use е (not all pages are about chess master, but there is only one correct way to pronounce this name anyway). Seems that Google doesn’t know about this feature).

  13. And what would you say about French announcers, who can only stress the last syllable, and thus mispronounce most foreign names?

  14. thanks for the clarification, unreal. One more question: is Alehkine a French spelling? I’m looking at the e on the end, which has always seemed bizarrely pout of place to me…

  15. linca: I don’t mind that, because it’s inherent in the structure of French. People should make a reasonable effort towards correctness within the structure of their language; I would cringe if somebody said “back” for Bach, but “bock” is perfectly OK — English doesn’t have a guttural fricative. (Listening to somebody trying to pronounce Van Gogh in Netherlandish fashion in the context of an English sentence isn’t a pretty business.) Of course, even by my standards we should be saying “wooj” for Lodz, but that’s unrealistic given the unintuitive (for English-speakers) spelling and the rarity of occasions for talking about the city.
    Paul: Yes, the -e indicates a French spelling; French being the language of culchah back then, most Russians who emigrated before WWII used French-friendly romanizations ending in -off or -ine.

  16. Native speakers may mistakenly say LadyZHENskaya, but it’s still not a valid option. KoZINtsev might be OK, although I’ve never heard it.
    Kournikova is a rather different story. Until recently, Russian passports (the ones for foreign travel, not internal IDs) used a French system of transliteration, presumably because French was once the language of diplomacy; that may explain the “ou” instead of “u”. Still, the first syllable of her name gets more often rhymed with “fur” than with “tour”. As for the stress, there was a Russian chemist called Kurnakov, whose name is normally pronounced KournaKOV so that his wife would be KournaKOVa. This volatility sort of excuses those who stress the penultimate syllable.
    If one’s Russian name ends in -in, like mine, one has to add an “e” when in France, of which Alekhine was a naturalized citizen. Mine actually means something in French, and the ending “e” only makes it feminine. 🙂 It’s good to be a -yan-named Armenian in France, though.

  17. Here’s a note in the Maude translation of “War and Peace”:
    “The RoSTOVs*

    *So stressed by Maude, probably on the analogy of the place-name; but A.B.Goldenveizer (Vblizi Tolstago, Moscow 1959) reports that Tolstoy himself always stressed it ROstov.”

  18. Here in Greece the same word means different things depending on the stress (e.g. tsiPOUra = a fish, TSIpoura = ouzo-like drink). In addition, the same name can receive a different stress depending on whether it is a first name or family name.
    There’s one shop in my town with a sign showing the owner’s name: two identical words, except that the accent is in different places. STAvros staVROS, or something like that.

  19. In a few episodes of the Sixties spy show Danger Man, characters supposedly fluent in Spanish or Japanese repeatedly say Ventyura and Nakamyura. That error ought to be less usual from American actors, I think.

  20. I have a question.
    What does the suffix “CHENKO” mean in a last name?

  21. Joseph Laden says

    As a a member of a family once known as Ladyzhinsky and as one who does not speak Russian I can only relate that my born in Russia relatives said, “Luh-DEE-zhin-skee.” The Ukranian village of Ladyzhin is actually closeby the town of Geisan, where my father’s family lived before emigrating to the U.S. I read of a Cossack pogram in the seventeenth century that wiped out 60,000 people in “the holy city of Ladyzhin.”

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