Tag Archives: diplomacy

Russian Pronunciation tips for the Sochi Olympics, and the language of undiplomacy


Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague David Leveille…

We’ll be hearing a lot from Russia over the next two weeks with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

We’ll also be hearing a lot of Russian words and names, some of which are not easy to pronounce. That includes the name of the Olympic host city itself.

We asked Martha Figueroa-Clark for some help. She thinks about this stuff all the time, as part of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

So, how exactly do you say Sochi?

“Sochi, the venue for the Winter Olympics, is usually anglicised as SOTCH-i (-o as in not, -tch as in catch, -i as the ‘y’ in happy) by English and Russian speakers alike — and this is the pronunciation we recommend to broadcasters. However, the Russian pronunciation of -o in Sochi is somewhere in between the English “law” vowel and the English ‘lot’ vowel (so somewhere between SAW-chi and SOTCH-i),” she said.

“When forming recommendations, our approach is to reflect the native pronunciation as closely as possible while bearing in mind practical considerations. Our pronunciation advice is anglicised for ease of pronunciation by English-speaking broadcasters and to ensure that names can be discerned by BBC audiences,” she added.

Some other Olympic venues in Sochi have interesting and challenging names for English speakers, so here are a few more pronunciations from the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

One of the skiing venues is Krasnaya Polyana, pronounced KRASS-nuh-yuh puh-LYAA-nuh (-uh as “a” in sofa, -ly as in million). Historically, the word krasnaya (feminine form) or krasny (masculine form) meant “beautiful.” Nowadays, it means “red.” Polyana means glade or clearing.

Turning to the Bolshoi Ice Dome, the word Bolshoi (big) is often anglicised as BOL-shoy (-ol as in olive, -oy as in boy), as in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. In Russian, it’s closer to buhl-SHOY (note final syllable stress), although there is a palatalised ‘l’ in Russian that has no equivalent in English. It’s similar to what you would hear when the word “lucrative” is pronounced as LYOO-kruh-tiv (-ly as in million) — as opposed to LOO-kruh-tiv (-oo as in boot).

In ice hockey’s Shayba arena, “shayba” is pronounced SHIGH-buh (-igh as in high, -uh as “a” in sofa) and means puck.

Another venue, Rosa Khutor, is pronounced ROZ-uh KHOO-tuhr (-o as in not, -uh as “a” in sofa, -kh as in Scottish loch, -oo as in boot, -uhr as “or” in doctor). Khutor means hamlet or farmstead.

And just in case you haven’t yet figured out how to pronounce President Vladimir Putin’s name, here’s a reminder. “In other Slavic languages, the name ‘Vladimir’ can be stressed on the first or last syllable, but in Russian, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable. ‘Putin’ is sometimes anglicised as PYOO-tin, perhaps by unconscious association with other English words like ‘putative’ or ‘punitive.’ The correct pronunciation, anglicised, is vluh-DEE-meer POO-tin (-ee as in street, -eer as in deer, -oo as in boot).”

If you take in all these suggestions, and manage to pronounce Sochi as well as the names of its many venues correctly and precisely, a Russian speaker might respond with “otlichno!” That’s Russian, for excellent. It’s pronounced “ah tlee chnah.”

And since we’re on the subject of Russian language and customs, I recommend trying Russian borscht. It’s also “otlichno.”

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    Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

    My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

    Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

    Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

    Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

    Listen in iTunes or here.

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