Saturday, July 4, 2009

How to pronounce Russian names

(if you are looking for an actual chart, here is a starting place with some given names that are all transliterated for you)

Wow, my blog has certainly been a potpourri lately. I haven't done a linguistics rant for awhile, and I'm feeling inspired, so here goes...

One of the fascinating things about the English language, or perhaps American culture, is the extreme inconsistency in (mis)pronunciation of foreign names and phrases. Let's face it, we're not known for our sophistication in this area, as a nation.

full post/-

A program on NPR today was pronouncing "Khrushchev" very oddly. It made me wince each time. I thought to myself, "Why can't Americans pronounce foreign names correctly?" But I immediately realized that 1) I would be making mistakes too if it weren't Russian (or possibly Spanish). I suppose English spelling is conducive to pronunciation errors. 2) It does sound know-it-all-ish when a person does know all the correct pronunciations, along with the trills and such (no offense, Alex Trebek).

So now I'm going to contradict myself and say that using foreign pronunciation is not always the best approach. After all, we live in America and speak English. I find it funny when Russians throw in an English word or two, as it messes up the flow of the language. It does make more sense when they Russify the word, even though it's funny to decline words like "McDonald's." So we shouldn't be ostracized for Americanizing words in our own country.

A person insisting on sticking to the "authentic" pronunciation of a foreign word risks being ridiculed, or possibly just misunderstood. If you've ever seen (or been) the kid who pronounces something like "et cetera" with a hard "c," then you know what I'm talking about.

So I don't know what the best policy is. Perhaps people's names should be an exception. I don't think anyone at McDonald's is going to have a fit over the pronunciation of "Big Mac," but if you were a sports star hearing your name butchered on the news, you might be offended.

Oh yes, the guide to Russian names. Well, the main lapse between English and Russian is where you put the stress. Basically, it's the opposite of your instinct. It's not VLAdimir, it's VlaDImir.

The example on the page above is "Ivan." We say "I-van" with a long "i" and the first syllable stressed. Russians say "ee-VAN" with the second syllable stressed, sounding more like the female name "Yvonne." And the origin is Greek, so it's not like the Russians have a monopoly on the pronunciation. I'm just saying....if you go to Russia, be aware.


  1. A very timely article, and I second everything you have said in it. Had those arguments myself. Russian is a beautiful language, no need to butcher it. A lot of people do. I think it stems from the inability to humble oneself and to be teachable.

    My professor at the college would always say tsar VLAdimir. I corrected him like 20 times during that year. No use. He didn't care. Phil, I hope you are reading this :P

  2. Yeah,'s always controversial when ppl try to pronounce foreign names. I've got the real experience of this case. Well, when I was a new employee in an IT company in Sydney, my boss was a dutch while most of the employees were australians. My name, 'Henny', is orginally a dutch name. Therefore, everytime he called my name, he always pronounced it as 'Honey' instead of 'Henny', because that's the way how my name is pronounced in dutch and many indonesians also pronounce it that way, though some others pronounce it like the english way.
    We weren't aware until one of my co-workers was joking on my boss and said, "Wow, M! it seems that both of you and Henny make a perfect couple!"
    My boss was blushed and he explained to that co-worker of mine, that it felt odd for him to pronounce my name in english way. I also explained to her why I didn't correct my boss' pronounciation on my name was because I got used to many ppl calling me that way. :)
    Luckily she understood the things after we explained it to her.
    So, yeah..back to your point, it's important to be aware on pronouncing foreign names or saying a foreign word to avoid missundertanding.

  3. I love the way you see all sides of an idea - me, too.

    When I pronounce a word in its proper Russian pronunciation, I know it sounds so odd because you have to shape your mouth a whole different way - it does stop the flow and sounds know-it-all-ish. But when I deliberately say something WRONG, that feels wrong, too (and if my kids are around they'll yell!)

    Ilya's name is especially clumsy. Il-YA just does not flow out of anyone's mouth in this country. I know it is right, yet I feel odd myself saying his name correctly to other people...not at home, of course.

    My most recent pet peeve (just showing I can also be contrarian) is the way the newscasters are so PC about saying "Mumbai"....yet whenever they interviewed anyone who actually LIVED there - the residents would say "Bombai".

    And - why be PC about "Mumbai" and not about "Moskva"?

    Here is a true story of the "ugly American" and pronunciation of names: Way back when I started with this job, I inherited the secretary who was previously in the position. I can assure you I would never have hired her myself. In any case, she continually mispronounced the name of one of our catechists. The woman's last name was Menig and the secretary always said Meing. I would pronounce it correctly in responding to her, but she never took the hint. Finally MONTHS into the year, I couldn't take it anymore and said, "I think it is Menig." She didn't miss a beat, but popped back, "Yeah, SHE says it that way."

  4. Well, I think there is a difference between translating and merely transliterating. "Moscow" and "Moskva" are clearly two different words. When Leningrad changed its name, we updated our books, but use our own version...we are not going to go around saying "Sankt Peterburg" or "Ross-i-ya" any more than Russians are going to spell out "United States" in Cyrillic. The names that we use are accepted nationwide, and the system is important for communication purposes.

    However, a person has the authority to decide how to pronounce his/her own name. That's how I feel. Some may even prefer to change it or choose a different version so that foreigners will have an easier time. But it's up to the person whose name it is. Nastia ended up using Anastasia or Ana more often because it didn't sound good in English.

    I have a few nicknames, that like "Henny," don't always sound good to foreign ears. So I normally present myself with the form that's least likely to attract attention or cause some sort of controversy.

  5. Can you help me with the pronunciation of " Fedor Sigaev"?

  6. It would be something like FYOdor SiGAIyev.

    You can direct personal questions to me at

  7. In name name Janulevich, which is a surname in the United States, would the accent be on the U or the E in Russian. The family is from Ukraine, if that makes any difference.

    Thank you.


  8. I was going to say on the "U." But the pronunciation does vary between countries, and even among families. It is best to ask someone from that country, or better yet, ask the person himself.


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