1 EAGLETON NOTES: On Pronunciation of Names

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

On Pronunciation of Names

Lee recently wrote about pronunciation and spelling in a particularly witty offering which included the following:
It’s gruelling having to read out loud the works of Russian novelists like Zhukovsky, Turgenev, Saltykov-Schedrin, Dostoyevsky, or the poets, Baratynsky, Batyushkov, Konstaninovich et al.

Leo Tolstoy is simple to pronounce, but try saying out loud continually at a rapid pace the name of his infamous heroine, Anna Karenina. Don’t even attempt those she hung around with such as Kirillovich Vronsky, Stiva Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Konstantin Dmitrievich, Sergej Ivanovich Koznyshev, Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya, to jumble but a few. Whew!

Why couldn’t Anna be friends with Tom Smith, Fred Brown and Jane Jones?
Strangely I have never had any problem with the Russian novels, novelists or names which I devoured voraciously as a young man/late teenager.

It reminded me of the after-dinner story Peter Ustinov used to tell of arriving (many years ago) at the Russian border with a party of British visitors. The border officials stumbled painfully over the unusual and difficult-for-a-Russuan-to-pronounce names: Jones, Smith, Chamberlain etc (and that's before one gets to the one's the Brits can't pronounce like Cholmondelly). So when they came to the last one they were utterly delighted to find a name they could pronounce easily: Ustinov.

It also reminded me of a meeting I attended many many years ago where a singularly uncontentious matter was put to the vote and one person voted against it. On being faced with querulous looks he explained that he could not face the idea of the Chariman having to try and say 'unanimously' yet again.

32 comments:

  1. I read a lot of Russian novels back in my teens/youth too. Not aloud, though... :) What I struggle with still is something that you may not have had as much reason to fret over: The fact that many Russian names are spelled differently in Swedish vs English. Take for example the composer Tchaikovsky. In Swedish we spell his name Tjajkovskij. And in German (just looked it up) it's Tschaikowski. Now we're talking difficulties!!!

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    1. Gosh Monica I'd never thought of that. I've seen Tchaikovsky spelt various ways but I had not considered it as a problem because I'm not fluent enough in any other language to have been reading any Russian novels in any language other than English. Mind you I read an American translation of The Gulag Archipelago when it was first published and that was quite a revelation particularly as it was written in what I thought was 'my' language.

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  2. I taught in a Ukrainian district and I'll never forget the kids stumbling over McGregor, Mehaffey, Johnson...

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  3. My husband, not having learned English until his late teens, still has some sounds that just will not come out right. Even 50 years later. I guess that the tongue and lips and muscles in your mouth must have to form the proper sounds for your individual language at an early age. At least that is my theory.

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    1. You are probably correct Mrs Thyme. On top of that there is our individual ability with languages and accents. I have a neutral English accent and have very little ability to speak with either the accent of the City in which I was born not the accent of the place where I have spent most of my life. I think that may be because my accent was 'taught' rather more than it was natural. Our son on the other hand is completely chameleonic and speaks naturally with the accent relevant to those around him - even in the same conversation.

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  4. When I read novels with names I can't pronounce I rename the character usually with the first 3 or 4 letters.

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    1. Diane given the name of your blog (which I really must start commenting upon) you obviously are well 'before'. My memory has never ever been good enough to do what you do. I'd forget the new name instantly.

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  5. Every time I see your header photo I wonder how that name is pronounced; and that's 'British'. My daughter in law is Russian/Swedish so can get her tongue around the most difficult (for me) of pronunciations. Me, I have no trouble with Welsh or French; but that's about where I stop.

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    1. Welsh shouldn't be a problem for me either Cro given my upbringing in Liverpool and the time I spent in Wales but the name in the header is Scots Gaelic and the pronunciation varies from township to township and, I suspect, would be very different if pronounced in Irish Gaelic. I am unaware of anyone on the Island whether a native English or Gaelic speaker who uses the name Baile na h-Iolaire (Town of the Eagle) in its Gaelic form.

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  6. I bet that gave spell checker a headache.
    I have never been able to read Russian novels for the simple reason I can't get the names straight in my head. I did try and learn Russian and that was not a success.

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    1. Adrian there as so much red underlining that I even ignored the misspelling of Chairman so assiduously spotted by YP.

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    1. Sorry, too many typing errors in first attempt - that's when I try to comment before I have had my first coffee...!!

      Pronounciationn-wise, German is a nicely neutral language. When it comes to names of people or places in other languages, I've never had a problem with those, no matter whether I speak the language or not. OK, Polish is a bit more difficult with its tendency to have many consonants one after the other without any vocals between them. But if I give myself enough time to read them properly and form them in my head before saying them out loud, I manage those, too. Some African languages are a bit challenging for the sheer length of their names, and Hindi names (and other languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent) aren't the easiest, either.
      But you won't be surprised to hear that I love those differences and challenges, and find true delight in learning words (and how to pronounce them correctly!) in another language.
      My first name, Meike, seems simple enough, doesn't it? And yet even though I've repeated it often, there are still some of my Yorkshire relatives who don't get it right. Never mind - they love me and I love them, and that's what counts.

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    2. Meike (and I would venture to say that I hope that I would pronounce your name correctly for two reasons: my first close German friends were named Feist and you told me how to pronounce yours many moons ago!) I think the thing about the German language is that it usually has rules. English has rules including the very important one that where a word is apparently subject to a rule of pronunciation then that rule probably doesn't apply. English has to be one of the most illogical languages there is. I am not by nature and envious person but I really do envy you your knowledge of and ability with languages.

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  8. Oh I absolutely love Russian names and have rarely had any difficulty pronouncing or remembering them, but then like you I've read a lot of Russian novels (many of which were your copy). Saying that, I once read an article on Russian pronunciation and realised I'd often been stressing the wrong syllables (e.g., it's Vlah-DEE-meer rather than VLAH-dih-meer, Ob-LOH-mov rather than OB-la-mov). I guess I'm okay as long as I don't have to discuss the names with a Russian person!

    I do find Georgian names (particularly surnames) more tricky though.

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    1. Helen I think you've hit the nail on the head. I'm good at Russian names in my head but whether I'd pass muster in Russia is a different matter.

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  9. I hate to ask this but what exactly is a "Chariman"? May we assume that his role was to make the "char" - rather like a charwoman?

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    1. Well spotted YP. My ability as a checker of prose leaves a lot to be desired.

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  10. But just think what high scores you would get if you were allowed to use names in Scrabble. The Russians and East Europeans would be winners. Mind you, Jane at least as a J (scores 8).

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    1. Frances and Ezra has a Z which, I think scores 10.

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    2. Have a Z. Blimey, spelling AND grammar have deserted you.

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    3. Ah Marcel this is more a question of whether there should be a comma before an 'and'. The sentence could read Frances [to whom the comment is addressed] , Ezra has a z......

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    4. I concede. Only your spelling AND punctuation.

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  11. I do the best I can with name pronunciation....having my French background comes in quite handy sometimes....not for the Russian though!!!

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    1. Virginia I suppose we all do the best we can and even if we think we've got the Russian names right perhaps a Russian would still look perplexed.

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  12. I've read many Russian novels, too...but not out loud. Reading them to myself I have no problems with the pronunciations of their names...but I would and do if having to say them out loud...even remembering them all is difficult enough!

    Perhaps I am the dumb one in the crowd, after all!

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    1. Lee whatever else you may be (that I don't know of) you are certainly not dumb. After all how many of us who don't watch Strictly Come Dancing could pronounce Aljaz Skorjanec.

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  13. I sort of skip over the names when I read Russian novels (which I admit I have not done for many years). So, if called upon to pronounce any of the names I am sure I would be at a loss, since they are only a sort of mumble in my mind!

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    1. Jenny after all that I've read in the comments I'm beginning to wonder whether I did find Russian names so relatively straightforward or whether I was kidding myself.

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  14. I am a bit tickled to see the comment from Jenny Woolf above, since I do the same thing, just skip over the names and this is in just about any novel, not just Russian ones! This is why I prefer non fiction, I suppose.

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    1. I think, Kay, that I probably come across more unpronounceable words (for me) in non-fiction than I do in fiction.

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