This post might be a little controversial — and not because of the inherently controversial nature of its subject, Vladimir Putin.
In a recent conversation about the Russian president* that took place among three European friends — a Brit who lives in America, a Dutchwoman who also lives in America, and a Brit who lives in France — there was major disagreement. And it wasn’t about Putin’s politics: our opinions on that subject were pretty much in synch. What we couldn’t agree on was how to pronounce his name. Between the three of us, there were three different pronunciations: POO-tin, PYOU-tin, and Poo-TEEN.
The French don’t just say his name differently from the rest of us: they spell it their own way. In most of the Western world in which the Roman alphabet is used, the president’s name is transliterated as and spelled “Putin”. But not so in France. There, for what might be either linguistic or diplomatic reasons, they spell his name “Poutine”, making it rhyme with routine when said aloud. The French might argue that their pronunciation of the more commonly spelled “-in” at the end of his name bears no resemblance to the “-tyeen” that the Russian alphabet prescribes, and therefore they needed to find another transliteration. But what’s just as likely is that the French felt uncomfortable pronouncing Putin’s name in the way most Frenchmen would be inclined to do if the name kept that spelling. Said aloud, it would be a homophone of putain: the French word for prostitute or whore. Not a good sound for a head of state. Especially a big state like Russia. So Poo-TEEN it is in France. Below is how the New York Times reported on this curiosity back in 2005.
But it’s the first syllable of Putin’s name — not the second — that separates the Brits from the Yanks.
This morning on American Public Media’s Marketplace radio program, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell (a Brit) was talking about Brand America and how the brand may have been damaged of late. That’s another story altogether, but during the conversation, in his cut-glass public-schoolboy accent, Sir Martin very clearly pronounced the Russian president’s name “PYOU-tin” [about 1.46 minutes in], inserting that “y” sound after the “p” and before the “u”. In the same way that we all pronounce the words pure, punitive, putrid, puny, pupil, and other words beginning with “pu” (except for those that have the open “uh” sound, like punish, puss, or publish), most Brits — at least those on the street — tend to do what Sir Martin does, inserting that ‘y’ sound. However, Americans say “POO-tin”. This is in keeping with a general rule described in an earlier Glossophilia post about the pronunciation of loan words in Britain and America: that Brits generally pronounce them according to what’s prescribed by the English spelling rather than that of the native language, whereas Americans tend to simulate the original pronunciation as much as possible. The Russian spelling of the President’s surname is Путин, which translates phonetically as “POO-tin”; if it were spelled ПЮтин, the Russians would call their leader “PYOU-tin”. (I used to speak some Russian as a kid, and I remember those two “oo” and “you” letters.) So the Americans are approximating the Russian sound, but the Brits are pronouncing it the way they themselves spell Vlad’s last name. Interestingly, British broadcasters — most notably the BBC — pronounce Putin’s name as the Russians and Americans do. (In fact, the BBC published a special guide on how to pronounce his name correctly, pointing out the common error of saying “pew” instead of “poo”.) So at least we’ve got it right officially in Great Britain. Have you ever heard Rasputin — the Russian dude with the beard and the eyes — pronounced Rass-POO-tin? Probably not, wherever you come from. A quick trot through YouTube suggests that it is pretty universally pronounced Rass-PYOU-tin, even by the Americans. Go figure.
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The New York Times delved into the French spelling and pronunciation of the Russian president’s name back in 2005:
“In France, they do the right thing by Putin’s first syllable, spelling it Pou (as in the French ou, ”where,” and fou, ”crazy”). But their difficulty arises in that second syllable, tsyin, which we approximate with in. The French have a linguistic problem that may also be a diplomatic problem. It’s the affair of the spelling of in. …
“But other, more conspiratorial linguists suggest that the spelling of Putin in English would be pronounced as putain in French — that is, sounding close to pew-TANH.
“Putain, in French, means ”prostitute; whore,” or in current correctese, ”sexual-services provider.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the probable source, slightly corrupted, of the U.S. slang term poontang, a derogation of women as a means of sexual gratification. Hence, the rejection of the English spelling of Putin and the switch to Poutine, pronounced poo-TEEN. Small wonder that French arbiters of usage and pronunciation — perhaps out of commendable delicacy, in the interest of the avoidance of offense and the leers of pundits — have embraced phony phonetics, unanimously choosing to mispronounce the name of the president of Russia.”
* I decided not to dignify his title with a capital P