Linguistic refractions

When a language is first encountered it can often be marked by the characteristics of the language through which it is first translated.

Take the example of Russian. French was probably the main language through which it was introduced to western Europe and it still bears some of the marks of that initial transcription from Cyrillic. We still conventionally spell Chaikovsky as Tchaikovsky: the initial T is not there in the Russian. It is there in our transliterated version because it makes the ch, which in French would make a sh sound, into a Russian (and English) ch sound.

Similarly with Chekhov. I have a copy of a history of Russian literature by the Anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, which spells the great playwright’s name, Tchekhov. Whilst we conventionally pronounce his name Chekov, the kh sound is in Russian pronounced like the ch sound in loch.

Greek has some more unusual examples. Transcriptions / adaptations of Greek words are refracted through Latin, since this was the first western European to come into contact with it. According to Wikipedia, Latin developed some specific conventions for transliterating Greek sounds into another language. For example, Greek υ (Ipsilon) was written as ‘y’, αι as ‘æ’, οι as ‘œ’, φ as ‘ph’, etc.

There are numerous words in Greek that include the letter combination au which in the original has the sound av or af (aftosafthentikos, etc.) and these have come through to other western European languages as an au sound (eg automatic, authentic, etc.). Similarly with the eu letter combination which in Greek has the sound ef or ev: thus names familiar to us from the Greek myths, such as Zeus or Odysseus, in Greek are pronounced Zevs and Odyssevs respectively.

Why should this be the case? My theory (happy to be shot down in flames on this one!) is that in its written form Latin did not distinguish between u and v and so both sounds were written as a v. Thus as the names moved into other languages the distinction between what was a v and what was a u got lost. Also perhaps because names like Zeus and Odysseus sound like Latin and the original Greek ev sound was an odd combination for western European ears, the Latinised forms prevailed.

Another oddity is the way that the Greek letter Veta is treated. This is the Greek name for the second letter of the Greek alphabet which, conventionally in English and other languages, we call Beta. So, for example, the Greek word vivlio (book) gets transliterated into biblio in compounds in western European languages. The Greeks called Byzantium ‘Vizantion’. Our word botany comes from the Greek word for a herb, votano. I don’t know how this v/b exchange comes about.

English had no direct contact with Greek until the 16th century when ancient classical texts became more widely known and translated. It was at that point, which coincides with the beginning of an explosion of interest in science, that English went to Greek root words to coin new technical terms. I have heard that there are 80,000 words of Greek origin in English, but so far I have not been able to validate this figure.


5 thoughts on “Linguistic refractions

  1. This is a fascinating area. I’m far from an expert, know very little Greek and this is refracted through my classicist mother, but I was under the impression that αυ and β were pronounced like in Latin in Classical times and it shifted to Modern Greek pronunciation over the 20+ centuries in between—and English has changed and evolved in an even shorter time, just think of Chaucer’s English. Also interesting (from here is that χ, θ and φ were pronounced differently in Classical times, but the last two have converged between English and Greek. This still happens with English words today and my favourite examples are from Brazil, where words like picnic and feedback become pikiniki and fijibaki.

    On a side note, I’ve mellowed very recently on how people pronounced foreign words in other languages. I went to a reading at a book festival last week with pieces by human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in Russia read by writers based in Britain. One of the readers clearly hadn’t read her text before and stumbled and stuttered through the forty or so Russian names, repeating some of them three or four times, while the entire audience looked on in ashen horror. The other readers were completely different: they’d decided how to pronounce the names, authentic or not, and just went for it.

    • Hi Rob,
      Apologies for not coming back to you sooner. I’ve been away on holiday and been sorting my life out a bit since I got back. Looks like you are right on the sound shifts. I’ll have to ask my Greek tutor about it, as she knows the classical language as well, though she tries to head me off if we go too far off track!

      Re pronunciation of Russian names, like you I’m getting a bit mellower. Time was during Wimbledon, the house would resound with me correcting the mispronunciation of Kournikova and Sharapova, much to my wife’s annoyance. I once heard a Radio 3 continuity announcer refer to someone called ‘Firedoor’ Dostoevsky. As far as Chekhov is concerned I cannot understand why, when a director goes to the trouble of putting on a Russian play in translation, he can’t make the effort to ensure that actors know how their characters names are pronounced. I’m not asking for perfect Russian pronunciation, just a good shot at some semblance of accuracy and correct stress.

      Also, why is is that in Russian plays on Radio 3 or 4, peasants are given northern English accents?

      I’d better stop, as I fear I am turning into a grumpy old man!


      • Haha, Firedoor Dostoevsky! Hahahahahahahaha. If you know, it’s very easy to judge, but I completely agree that it’s a matter of degree. Fundamentally, you just have to look like you’re making an effort or that you googled it at least. Saying Vládimir, María or Rascal-Nick-Off is fine (and potentially an improvement), but there’s really no excuse for imagining there’s a place between Moscow and St Petersburg called Teevore…

        It’s funny you mention tennis players: I remember a conversation between two Russians trying to work out how you really pronounce Kafelnikov.

  2. The trouble with most English-speaking people, IMHO, is that their language consists of mostly shorter (rarely over 2 syllables) words. This is especially true with first names. Think if Bill, Bob, Rob, etc. Even though most of these names have a longer, more formal pronunciation, people usually go for the shorter version if they are even remotely familiar with the person.

    Russian, on the other hand, has many multi-syllable words as well as words that came into the language from other languages (French, Greek, German, etc.) The accents are inconsistent and often you need to knew the root word to know which syllable to put the stress on. For example, I think Kafelnikov would be stressed on a as I think this name comes from Kafel (tile).

    • There are a lot of English words that are longer than two syllables. Russian also has a tendency to shorten names and even nouns (at least in Twitter-speak).

      I do agree about the irregularity of Russian stress. How I wish that Russian would use stress marks like Modern Greek does!

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