Friday, October 24, 2008


We had a little row in class today. The teacher was correcting almost everybody about our mispronunciations of the letter “O.” The letter is pronounced long in a stressed syllable but it’s generally pronounced as in the word “pot.” I was reading aloud a story about a bunch of foreign students, including a Spanish student named Lolita. I pronounced her name the way that was natural for me, as we hear it both in Spanish and in English. That was wrong, of course, because since the “o” is in an unstressed syllable Russians want to pronounce it more like “ah.”

Wanting to be a little ironic, I said “OK, this is a Spanish girl named Lahlita.” Tatiana insisted that that was the only way to pronounce that name. Frustrated, I reminded everybody that my brother’s name is Roger. I’d already been schooled on that one in another recitation, when I gave a report on my family to the class. It turns out that in spite of what I’ve been calling my brother his entire life, his name is actually Rō’ger. The O is long and first R is rolled though the second is not.

Sympathetic to my frustration, my friend and classmate Çağatay took the opportunity to tell Tatiana that his name is not “Chagatai,” as pronounced in class (sounding a lot like Chug-a-lug), but something like “Chaatai.” I haven’t mastered it myself, but I always try to get as close as I can. Tatiana told him that given the Russian alphabet he had to be “Chagatai.” “That’s not my name,” he objected, now in English and with supporting complaints about an identity crisis.

I thought the English-speaking world was uniquely offensive in mis-pronouncing the names of foreign cities, but now I see that this may be a wider problem. Perhaps folks in Western Europe do fairly well at respecting local pronunciation, but it appears that Russian-speakers, like English-speakers, may tend to convert pronunciations of foreign names. I wonder if Tatiana is right about this. I wonder if I’m even right about my idealized view of those Western Europeans.

Sorry Rog. I tried. I think we should all try to pronounce peoples’ names in the way the owner of the name will find familiar, and I feel the same way about foreign cities. Apparently this is a little odd.

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