Interpretation of English "h" in proper names in Russian

Tower of Babel

Senior Member
USA
USA (American English)
For some names and words that come from English, an initial letter 'h' is converted to 'х' in Russian. For example:

Hillary Clinton - Хиллари Клинтон / Kamala Harris - Камала Харрис / Hilton Hotels - Гостиницы Хилтон / Houston - Хьюстон / hockey - хоккей / hot dog - хот-дог​

For other words, English 'h' is converted to 'г'. For example:

Prince Harry - Принц Гарри / Halley's Comet - Комета Галлея / Harvard University - Гарвардский университет / Halifax - Галифакс / helium - гелий / hamburger - гамбургер​

The use of 'г' seems strange, because 'х' would provide a closer approximation to the English pronunciation. For example, "хамбургер" would be a better phonetic representation than "гамбургер".

Is there a reason why 'г' is used instead of 'х' for some names and words?
 
  • GCRaistlin

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Традиция. Например, George Harrison (из битлов) - это Харрисон, а Harry Harrison (писатель) - это Гаррисон.

    Для русского уха начальное ха не особо благозвучно.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    The use of 'г' seems strange
    That goes a couple of centuries back, when "г" letter had two pronunciations orthoepically: /g/ and /ɦ/. The latter comes from the old normative pronunciation of "г" in Russian Church Slavonic, which was greatly influenced by Ukrainian around the 17th century due to certain historical reasons. So all the loans from Church Slavonic (and they're pretty numerous) were supposed to be pronounced with /ɦ/; naturally, /ɦ/ was also used to transcribe /h/ of European languages. Lomonosov's poem "Бугристы берега..." (from the mid 18th century) plays on the two pronunciations of "г" of the time, apparently calling for an orthographic reform.

    The trouble is that the norm was artificial from the start, as the live dialects of Moscow and St. Petersburg had only /g/ (as the inherited reflexes of Proto-Slavic /*g/). During the 19th century /ɦ/ was mostly gone from the Russian orthoepy, being replaced with /g/; in the 20th century it was practically lost in Church Slavonic too. Spelling certain words with "г" (now pronounced as /g/) remains, though.

    In a sense, /ɦ/ remains a marginal phoneme in Russian even now, since "ага" ("yeah", "aha") is rarely pronounced as [ɐ'ga] - more typically it's [ɐ'ɦa] or [ɐ'ɣa] ([ɦ] and the South Russian [ɣ] are basically interchangeable, with the difference being perceptionally irrelevant). Cf. also still varying pronunciations of the exclamation "Господи!": it may be ['gɔspədʲɪ] (as in the normal vocative form), but also ['ɣɔs(:)pədʲɪ], ['ɦɔs(:)pədʲɪ], ['xɔs(:)pədʲɪ] or ['ɔs(:)pədʲɪ]. The other obvious trace of the old Church Slavonic orthoepy is the pronunciation of "Бог" as ['bɔx] (with /ɦ/ in the weak position of devoicing resulting in [x], as it does in Standard Ukrainian).

    The tradition of representing English "h" as "г" affects widespread given names (e.g. Га́рри, Ге́нри), surnames of historical figures (Гудзо́н, Гу́вер) and prominent geographical objects (like Гэ́мпшир - but also Хэ́мпшир). Sometimes surnames obviously originating from the given names are affected (otherwise we would be getting absurd combinations like *Га́рри Ха́ррисон), but more typically transcription is used anyway (Джо́рдж Ха́ррисон).
     
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    Tower of Babel

    Senior Member
    USA
    USA (American English)
    That goes a couple of centuries back, when "г" letter had two pronunciations orthoepically: /g/ and /ɦ/. The latter comes from the old normative pronunciation of "г" in Russian Church Slavonic, which was greatly influenced by Ukrainian around the 17th century due to certain historical reasons.
    Thank you for the fascinating historical explanation! Very interesting about the two pronunciations of 'г', and the influence of the Ukrainian language.

    In this regard, I have heard that present-day Russians can detect a Ukrainian person who is speaking Russian because Ukrainians tend to pronounce Russian 'г' as /ɦ/ rather than /g/?
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    In this regard, I have heard that present-day Russians can detect a Ukrainian person who is speaking Russian because Ukrainians tend to pronounce Russian 'г' as /ɦ/ rather than /g/?
    It's neither a specific feature of Ukrainian (especially since [ɦ] and the South Russian dialectal [ɣ] are barely differentiated by Russian speakers) nor really characteristic of the Ukrainian accent (because standard Ukrainian does have [g] as a phoneme, and pronouncing [ɦ] instead of [g] in Russian is sufficiently stigmatized in Ukraine). There are features which are more subtle and difficult to hide, like the semi-hard [ʧ] instead of the standard Russian soft [ʨ], the presence of the soft [ʦʲ] (sometimes used in a hypercorrect attempt to imitate the Russian [tʲ]~[tˢʲ]), positional appearance of [w] instead of [v]/[f], the lack of vowel reduction and/or imitating the reduction patterns incorrectly, a specific rhythm and intonations of speech; together they create a pretty characteristic and unmistakeable image.
     

    Tower of Babel

    Senior Member
    USA
    USA (American English)
    Thank you @Awwal12, you are very helpful and knowledgeable. I don't know phonology and phonetics in depth, but enough to understand and appreciate your answers :thumbsup:
     
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