Pronouncing Foreigners’ Names

Some comments on the thread about pronouncing foreign country names (such as Qatar and France) raised the question of how we should pronounce foreign people’s names. Here too my answer is: We should follow the English norms, which often depart from the norms in those people’s native languages—just like, I expect, how foreigners follow their own languages’ norms when pronouncing English speakers’ names in those languages.

Let me give some illustrations from the two languages I know, English and Russian. When pronouncing Russians’ names, there are at least two separate questions:

[1.] Translate or transliterate? Some famous Russians’ first names are conventionally translated into English, when they are commonly understood to be translatable. Lev Tolstoy usually becomes Leo Tolstoy, Aleksandr Pushkin usually becomes Alexander Pushkin, the fictional Yevgeniy Onegin usually becomes Eugene Onegin, Piotr Tchaikovsky usually becomes Peter Tchaikovsky, Czar Nikolai II usually becomes Czar Nicholas II, Lev Trotsky usually becomes Leon Trotsky, Yosif Stalin usually becomes Joseph Stalin.

Russian at least used to do the same in the past; the French Kings Louis in Russian are usually Liudovik, and the English Kings Henry are usually Genrikh. (Lincoln is apparently Avraam rather than Abraham, though all the other Presidents’ names appear not to be translated.) If Wikipedia is to be trusted, the English Kings James in Russian are Yakov and in French are Jacques. Elizabeth II was apparently Isabel II in Spanish.

But Fyodor Dostoevsky doesn’t become Theodore, Nikolai Gogol doesn’t become Nicholas, Andrei Sakharov doesn’t become Andrew, and Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t become Michael. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Solzhenitsyn appear to be roughly equally common.) Ivans to my knowledge never become Johns, but my sense is that the Ivan-John connection is just too distant.

Much depends, as with country names, on how the name was first written when it became well-known to English speakers. (That also explains why some transliteration seems a bit odd to English speakers, such as Tchaikovsky, which likely made its way into English via French.) My sense is also that over time English have moved away from translation, but the norm was never solidly in favor of translation, and Solzhenitsyn’s example shows that translation has not entirely died away.

[2.] Accent and vowel sounds. But even when the names are fully transliterated, the accent often sharply departs from the original. In Russian, it’s Gorbachov, with the accent on the last syllable; in English, it’s Gorbachev. Likewise, the English Washington becomes Vashington in Russian. The Russian and Ukrainian given name Vladimir (as in Lenin, Putin, and Zelenskiy) shifts from Vladimir in the original to Vladimir in English.

And neither Russian nor English have strong accent preferences; I expect that in French, for instance, the pronunciation of foreign names shifts even more commonly, to the local language norm (the last syllable).

Beyond that, English often doesn’t adapt the vowel sounds of foreign names, even when those vowels are available in English. Vladimir Putin’s name, for instance, would be pronounced more or less like Vladeemeer Pooteen. English speakers are able to pronounce that, even if they can’t pronounce some more exotic sounds (like the Russian soft consonants, or the Russian vowel ы). But that’s just not the way things are done in English; the Russian и is transliterated as “i,” and pronounced the way “i” is usually pronounced in English, even though in Russian it’s pronounced “ee.” Likewise, English speakers could pronounce Ivan as “Eevahn,” which would be pretty close to the Russian original, but that’s just not the norm.

All this, of course, is much like what happens with foreign countries’ names in English. Even when English borrows the foreign spelling or transliterates it from a different alphabet into English, it often shifts the accented syllable and changes the pronunciation of particular vowels (France, Chile) and sometimes consonants (Mexico, Argentina) to fit the more common English norm.

So are we wrong to pronounce Russian names that way? No, because we’re pronouncing them in English. English words, even when derived from a foreign language, often acquire a different English pronunciation. Same with English names for foreign people.

[3.] People who aren’t famous. Of course, all this stems from established patterns in the English language, which are usually established for well-known names. People who come over with a name that isn’t yet familiar have has has has has a slightly better chance of getting English speakers to pronounce it the original way, subject to the limitations of the phonemes or initial consonant clusters that English speakers know how to produce. And when we interact face-to-face with people we know, there’s somewhat more of a norm of trying to go along with their personal preferences on how their names are pronounced.

Still, if your name is, for instance, Vladimir (to take my father’s name as an example), that’s sufficiently well-established in English that you might as well stick with the English pronunciation, rather than taxing your friends and colleagues’ memories with your preferred way of saying it. And if your name is Yevgeniy, just make things easier on yourself and your new fellow countrymen and become Eugene (or the much less dweeby Gene, which I should have chosen for myself but for foolish reasons didn’t).

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