As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s $50 billion Olympics are set to begin, we turn our sights to the world of ‘transliteration’ - the representation of sounds of words from one alphabet in another alphabet.
There’s no easy way in English to faithfully replicate the sound of the President's name in Russian. We've been there before. Was it Leonid Brezhnev or Brejnev?
In this 2005 New York Times article, William Safire wrote: “We are officially informed by the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin pronounces the u in this name with neither the yew sound nor the u in put or but. If we wanted our spelling to represent accurately the sound of the way Russians pronounce the first syllable of his name, it would be POO-tin or POU-tin. Our mouthing of that last syllable would still be a little off because of what phonologists, the scientists of sounds, call ''the soft t,'' which doesn't exist in our alphabet. The closest I can get in Roman spelling to the sound of his name in Russian would be POO-tsyin, or POO-tyeen.”
Safire added: “However you do it, with whatever authority you cite, some native speaker will surely tell you that you're all wrong.”
The French have an additional challenge. Putin in English is pronounced putain in French. Which means “prostitute or whore”. The French in France and in Québec solved that problem by spelling Vladimir Putin’s last name Poutine. Makes for funny headlines. Here's one from France's Le Monde: "Poutine, the absolute male".
Where does this leave us with the other poutine - Québec's accidental delicacy now being served globally?
The word poutine is pronouced poo-teen in English, like routine.
That's good news for all poutine lovers in English Canada because you won’t find Pooteen written this way on menus. At least not to our knowledge.
Here’s a highly sophisticated infographic to make sense of it all.