Nouillorque taillemse donne lailleque ze frentche?

A very strange On Language column in the NY Times about transliteration. After explaining why the actual phonetics of russian president Putin‘s surname do not transliterate very well into english, in particular because of the inappropriate hard t and in ending, William Safire weirdly goes on to

the reason that French is known as the language of diplomacy. In France’s official documents, as well as uniformly in the French press, Vladimir Putin’s last name is spelled Poutine. As a natural result, it is pronounced poo-TEEN, rhyming with our ‘’routine.’’ The French undoubtedly know that is not the way he or his compatriots, or even President Bush looking into his soul, pronounce Putin’s name.

The article omits to point out the French origin of its example word routine, and that it is therefore not pronouced, in original French, the same way as it is in English. In fact, not to oversimplify the point, the ine ending is not a lot like the English een, the latter being a long sound, whereas the former is a shorter one; it’s in fact somewhere between the English een and in.

One thing phonetology amateurs are familiar with, is that the soft t does exist in French, albeit not as an identified alphabetical or typographical marker: it softens automatically before certain sounds, such as (surprise!) i. If Russian has softener and hardener markers, it’s because they have both options in their phonetic structure. If French doesn’t it’s because it’s a direct consequence of the succession of the sounds.

Then there is the question of accentuation (stress). It is true that Russian is a heavily accentuated language, to the point that the location of the phonetic emphasis in the word will in many cases change the sound of the vowel. The o will be pronouced more or less as an english o if accentuated, whereas it will be closer to an ah when the accent is elsewhere in the word. Other vowels behave similarly. So accent is a key component of pronunciation in Russian, more so than in many languages. From that point of view, English’s natural accentuation on the first syllable is indeed closer to the original. But that’s not a function of a choice in transliteration spelling, it’s a function of the language’s stress rules.

So to summarize:

  1. The English transliteration gets the stress right, but is very approximative in the sounds;
  2. The French transliteration is better at getting the sounds right, but gets the stress wrong.
  3. In both cases, it is simply a direct result of each language’s phonetic rules.

The article continues the fallacious charge with:

Why the error in transliteration? Official French sources tell me that because the sound that we write as in has no place in French pronunciation, an e has been added to make the sound more amenable to the French tongue, and that’s all there is to it.

The author makes it clear that he considers this a false justification. One can only wonder about the familiarity of the writer with such questions: the e has not been added in French to make it more amenable, it’s been added because it would otherwise produce a different sound. It’s precisely adding the e that brings it closer to the English in. Mr. Safire seems to know that, because he then expands on how it would have been pronounced similarly to putain, meaning whore.

After failing to prove the point that purports to be the subject of the article, the article concludes by stating that the French

have embraced phony phonetics, unanimously choosing to mispronounce the name of the president of Russia

to avoid embarrassment.

It’s hard to tell which is the most important of the intentions in the article, between having a boyish chuckle on the French pronunciation of the English transliteration of Putin meaning whore in French, or portraying the French as a cowardly race who will go to any lengths, including debasing their own language, to avoid embarrassing either themselves or a ruler of Putin’s ilk. Either way, and notwithstanding Mr. Safire’s constitutional right to indulge in either, it would probably help language and culture professionals if such false ideas and wrong ways of thinking about language were not endorsed in such major public organs as the NYT.

Of course, the NYT’s job is not to make ours easier.

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