Monday, February 28, 2011

That tricky Russian letter again

Once again, Alex's team lets him down. Nobel Prize winner Konstantin Novoselov (Константин Новоселов)'s surname is not pronounced noVOHselov, but instead novuhSYOHlov (that yoh is like Yo!). Yes, that E-pronounced-YO is tricky, but you'd think the crack Jeopardy! guys could cruise by Wikipedia or something. Wouldn't you?

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At 9:20 PM, February 28, 2011 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

I've already lamented on these pages how Alex pronounces Portuguese terms with a Spanish accent. Sigh :-(((

At 9:52 AM, March 01, 2011 Blogger Barry Leiba had this to say...

Is that "e" pronounced the same as "ë" would be? Or is there a difference? Is there a concise way to know when "e" is pronounced that way? What's the correct way to pronounce "Медведев"?

At 11:03 AM, March 01, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Yes, it's the same. The diaresis is generally not used, except in texts for children or foreigners, though it's becoming a bit more common than it was.

Medvedev (Медведев) has no ë in it, so it's myed-VYED-yif [ˈdmʲitrʲɪj ɐnɐˈtolʲjɪvʲɪtɕ mʲɪˈdvʲedʲɪf] - the final syllable has a devoiced consonant and a much reduced vowel.

As for rules on the ë (jo)... it's complicated. Basically, it only affected the letter E that was derived from the PIE e or short i - thus not the vowel Russian used to have called yat', earlier written as Ѣ but as E since the orthographic reforms in the early 1920s (бѣлый лѣбѣдь = белый лебедь and not бëлый лëбедь).

A E became a Ë when:
1. it was between a hard and a soft consonant (non-palatalized and palatalized), AND
2. it was stressed.
Bear in mind that Й (the consonantal Y, or jot) is considered a soft consonant, and thus initial Еs followed by hard consonants changed.

So, Новоселов has a stressed E between a palatalized (or soft) С and a non-palatalized (or hard) Л, and is Новосëлов.
The change happened in the 13-14th centuries, so no words borrowed into Russian since 1500 have a ë in them (e.g., газета has a stressed е between a soft з and a hard т, but it is a е and not a ë).

Some apparent contradictions can be seen around the consonants Ж and Ш, which hardened at approximately the same time in the language's development. So some words have expected ë's and some don't, and sometimes the consonant is the hard one and sometimes not - e.g., in ЖËН the ж is (or rather was at the time) soft, but in ËЖ it was (and still is) hard. Also, Ц only became a hard consonant in the 16th century, too late to play a role in this.

With luck that wasn't too much - or too little - information.

At 11:11 AM, March 01, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

ps - I should note that Медведев would have been written Медвѣдев; the first syllable is a soft М and a hard Д, and the word мед - honey - does have a ë, but the stress in the word медведь (bear) (and the surname derived from it) is on the second syllable.

At 3:29 PM, March 01, 2011 Blogger Barry Leiba had this to say...

Thanks for that — it's fascinating! As I've said before, I always wonder how these "rules" come up, and why.

At 1:42 PM, March 03, 2011 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

They just happen. Why did we stop pronouncing the e in the past tense or the genitive in English (for the most part)? These things are regular enough to be described after the fact, but I don't think anybody will ever be able to predict them.

At 3:12 PM, March 03, 2011 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Portuguese has had some official orthographic reforms over the past several decades -- streamlining spellings, removing unnecessary diacritics, and generally making the written language more uniform worldwide (read: more Brazilian, since they comprise ca. 75% of the world's Lusophones). The latest changes were proposed in 2008 -- at which some European Portuguese are still chafing.


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