According to an article in Der Standard (seconded by a badly written Moscow News story), the city of Ulyanovsk (formerly Simbirsk, near where Karamzin, the inventor of the letter, was born) is planning to erect a stone monument to honor the letter ё [yo], which has long been ousted from official Russian documents. The Wikipedia article on the letter says “The fact that yo is frequently replaced with ye in print often causes some confusion to non-Russians, as it makes Russian words and names harder to transcribe accurately,” but according to an impassioned plea for its use (by E. Pchelov and V. Chumakov), it confuses Russians too, so that some say Chebyshev for the correct Chebyshov (Чебышёв) and routinely mispronounce foreign names. One statement in their article struck me: is it true that Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” known to Russians these days as Вишнёвый сад [vishnyóvyi sad], should actually be Вишневый сад [víshnyevyi sad]? Perhaps Avva, a proponent and user of the letter, will know. (Thanks for the tip, Adam!)

Update (2010). Thanks to a question from MMcM in this thread, I have investigated and learned that the statue was actually built; it says here that the winner of the competition to design it was Alexander Zinin, a local artist who decided to base his design on the form of the letter as it first appeared in print on page 166 of Karamzin’s almanac Aonidy in 1797 (in the word слёзы ‘tears’), and you can see an image here.


  1. All of the various yodic letters, as well as the hard sign and soft sign, are part of the Mongolian alphabet. As far as I know they’re pretty much useless for actual Mongol words, though of course Mongol includes many Russian borrowings now.

  2. I find the Cyrillic form of Mongolian virtually useless for figuring out how words actually sound.

  3. In the Pchelov & Chumakov screed, the point that made the biggest impact on me was of the indeterminacy of “Хрущёв.” In my experience, this is a very real concern abroad (i.e., places where Russian is not spoken). In the US, for instance, I’ve never heard it as anything other than “crew chef” ([‘kru:šef]).

  4. You know, referring to … the inventor of the letter… before you’ve mentioned …the letter ё… could give a reader the impression that Karamzin’s impact on written language was even greater than is actually the case.

  5. …especially when in the “plea” you linked to the authors atribute the invention to Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, who was 22 yrs senior.
    I’m not 100% sure of this anecdote; regarding Cherry Orchard, it seems they are correct:
    Словарь трудностей
    ВИШНЁВЫЙ и устарелое вишневый. В XIX веке ударение вишневый было нормативным. Например, у М. Лермонтова: “На кудри мягкие надета Ермолка вишневого цвета” (Тамбовская казначейша). В книге К. С. Станиславского “Моя жизнь в искусстве” упоминается, что А. Чехов первоначально называл свою пьесу “Вишневый сад”.

  6. Traditional Mongol orthography is as useless as English orthography for telling you the actual sounds. When I was trying to transition between my understanding of pre-classical Mongol (the Secret History) to modern Mongol written in traditional script (which I find very beautiful and dramatic), I found the experience infuriating.
    Then I realized that the problem is exactly the problem with English, traditionalist script forms which haven’t changed as pronunciation changed.

  7. I have seen “Chebyshev” (as in Chebyshev polynomials) transliterated into Roman characters about a zillion different ways – Tchebyshev, Tchebysheff, etc. Chebyshov is a new one to me, though.

  8. It is just that a monument is created for the ë. I like this letter because I don’t have to doubt about stress if it is present in a word :).
    Is Ulyanovsk named after Lenin?
    I have also never seen Chebyshov transliterated as such in mathematical literature. Probably, everyone sticks to conventional e now. It is true that some Russian people also pronounce his name wrong.
    What is the most common standard for transliteration from Russian into English?

  9. My favourite Russian letter. As a child one of my invented languages had a plural ending [jQ] because I liked the look of Tolkienian and Old English (as filtered through 1066 And All That) words ending in -ë.

  10. Michael Farris says

    I like ë for the same reason, you know where the stress is and it will lead to better transliteration when necessary (though I’d prefer using ë instead of ‘yo’ or ‘o’ or as in eë or vsë). I do wish it were standard, is it produced as a basic letter on Russian keyboards or is it like non ASCII letters, more difficult to type?
    As for Cyrillic Mongolian, it has some serious imperfections, mostly due to wholesale importation of Russian vocabulary which aren’t modified the same way in writing that they are in speech (and unlike Turkic, I think palatization isn’t so important in Mongolian to require the soft vowel signs.
    Nevertheless I’ve read that plans to reintroduce the Mongolian alphabet had more or less stalled, because it’s even worse. It’s one good feature is that it’s easier to use for all Mongolic speakers since it mismatches all the varieties more or less equally, whereas Cyrillic is more aimed specifically at Khalkha as spoken in the country Mongolia.

  11. Chebyshov is a new one to me, though.
    …I have also never seen Chebyshov transliterated as such
    It may never be transliterated that way for all I know; I was just showing the pronunciation. Of course if it’s spelled Чебышев in Russian, the correct transliteration is Chebyshev, but it’s impossible to guess the correct pronunciation from that.
    Is Ulyanovsk named after Lenin?
    Yes, and apparently they’ve chosen not to revert — I guess they’re proud of their native son.
    the authors attribute the invention to Princess Ekaterina Dashkova
    My apologies to the Princess; I was just parroting what the story on the monument said. And thanks for the information on the original pronunciation of Вишневый!

  12. That Standard article is pretty embarassing – they describe Ulyanovsk as a “kleines Dorf” (i.e. small village) and a “Wolga-Ortschaft (Volga community). Ulyanovsk is actually a sizable city of 600 thousand people, home to a lot of manufacturing.
    Also Karamzin was born in a small village near Orenburg, not Simbirsk. He moved to Simbirsk later in life. Finally I had understood that “Levin” is originally a non-Jewish name either with or without the “yo”, although many Jews adopted it because of the phonetic resemblance to Levy.
    There’s another article from the AFP which is a little better, in particular because they trot out some obscenities for unsuspecting foreigners – http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_1457370,0047.htm

  13. “Gorbachev” and “Chernobyl” would seem to be the most frequent examples of the misleading transliteration in recent decades, unless there’s something else going on in those cases that I’m not aware of. (But probably “Chernobyl” should use the Ukrainian name instead, and that might affect the transliteration.)

  14. Chernobyl does not have a ë, if that’s what you’re referring to. In fact, the normal English pronunciation is a lot closer to the original than with most Russian/Ukrainian place names.

  15. I think I was assuming “Chernobyl” had an ë because I remembered seeing that the Ukrainian name was spelled with an “o” here.

  16. You’re right, it seems to be spelled with an o in Ukrainian. But it’s going to take a long time for English spelling to catch up with the change from Russian to Ukrainian, and I doubt it is likely to in this case — “Chernobyl” is just too firmly set in the language.

  17. There is no ё in Ukrainian alphabet, and prononciation is different from Russian: ч in чо isn’t soft.

  18. My next-door neighbor used to have a joke about his dog that he’d tell whenever she sat up on one of the antique dining-room, close-mouthed, with her tight white throat, raising her chin high to listen to something in the street:
    “Charley, how is D [not Darby, not Darcy, but something starting with a D] like a nuclear accident? – ‘Cause she’s sure noble!”
    Which is to say, I see it spelled with a ? in Russian and in Ukranian, but isn’t it pronounced with a ? [sh] in English?

  19. Well, that didn’t work. The Russian character was supposed to be a [ch]; the wikipedia links are the Russian and Ukranian versions of the page on Chenobyl, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl, and the phonetic symbol should have been a voiceless postlveolar fricative, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_postalveolar_fricative.

  20. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it pronounced with a [sh] in English, but I can’t be sure, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

  21. I don’t think I’ve heard “Chernobyl” with a [ʃ] either, but perhaps it’s related to English speakers’ tendency to use [ʒ] rather than [ʤ] in “Beijing” and “Taj Mahal”? Are the affricates not foreign-sounding enough?

Speak Your Mind