Tips on Speaking Ukrainian

If you’ve ever heard Ukrainians speak Russian, you will have noticed that they almost always pronounce the Russian G as an H. Hence, gavaril (I spoke) will come across as havaril, gaspadin (mister) as haspadin, golod (hunger) as holod. Gorbachev will be Horbachev, Grozny will be Hrozny, Germaniya will be Hermaniya, and so on.

When Ukrainians transliterate their own names into English, you’d think that Hanna would, by this logic, be Hanna, that Ihor would be Ihor, and so on, right? Wrong. For some reason Hanna becomes Ganna and Ihor becomes Igor.

Awright, you must be thinking, in that case the English H should be a Ukrainian G, right? Or, at least, an English H should be a Ukrainian H.


English Hs remain Hs, except of course when they don’t: and then they become—no, not Gs—but KHs (as in Loch Ness). So, Houston is spelled and pronounced KHyuston, art house film is pronounced artKHous film, coffee house becomes coffee KHous, and so on.

OK, so what happens to English Gs? They meet the same fate as Russian Gs and become Hs. Hence, Washington becomes VashinHton, Goethe becomes Hoethe, Galsworthy become Halsvorsi, and so on.

Just in case you didn’t get it, let me summarize: Gs are always pronounced as Hs, while Hs are pronounced as Hs except when they’re pronounced as Gs or KHs. Got that?

I once wrote a column in some Ukrainian newspaper saying that there is no place in America called Khyuston and that the street bearing the same name in New York City is not Khouston, but Houston. Naturally, no one listened.

Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right? Here’s President Viktor Yanukovych’s official biography, amended in the above spirit:

Viktor Fedorovycg Yanukovycg was born on July 9, 1950 in Yenakiyeve, Donetsk rehion. Ge hraduated from Donetsk Polytecgnic Institute (now Donetsk State Tecgnical University) in 1980 witkh a major in Mecganical Enhineerinh. Ge obtained Master’s Dehree in International Law at tkhe Ukrainian Academy of Foreihn Trade in 2001. Viktor Yanukovycg is a member of tkhe Academy of Economic Sciences of Ukraine, PgD in Economics. Ge kholds awards “For Merit” of tkhe first, second and tkhird dehrees, Gonored Transport Worker of Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovycg’s core public activity is being tkhe Gonorary Leader of tkhe Party of Rehions. Ge is married to Lyudmyla Yanukovycg. Ge was elected deputy of Donetsk Rehional Council (1999), people’s deputy of tkhe Verkgovna Rada of tkhe fiftkh convocation (2006), people’s deputy of tkhe Verkhovna Rada of tkhe sixtkh convocation (2007). Viktor Yanukovycg was elected tkhe President of Ukraine by tkhe results of national vote on February 7, 2010. On February 25 ge swore tkhe oatkh of tkhe President of Ukraine.

Hey, it makes sense to me.

One more thing. Most Ukrainian publications refer to Russians with Ukrainian versions of their first names. Thus, Vladimir Lenin appears as Volodymyr, Dmitri Medvedev is Dmytro, Nikita Khrushchev becomes Mykyta. This is a tad odd, since if you told a Russian-speaking inhabitant of Donetsk that his real name is Volodymyr, and not Vladimir, he’d have a hissy fit. And go try telling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that he’s really Oleksandr.

On the other hand, there’s something warm and fuzzy about this nativization of foreign names. (I once saw plaques in Italy commemorating Enrico Ibsen and Riccardo Wagner!) The only problem is that it doesn’t go far enough.

So here’s my suggested list of appropriate Ukrainian-to-English spellings:

Taras Shevchenko: Terry Shevchenko
Mykola Azarov: Niki Azarov
Ivan Franko: Johnny Franko
Dmitri Tabachnik: Dennis Tabachnik
Lesya Ukrainka: Ali Ukrainka
Yuri Andrukhovych: George Andrukhovych
Mykhaylo Hrushevsky: Mike Hrushevsky
Arsenii Yatseniuk: Arsenio Yatseniuk
Lyudmyla Yanukovych: Lady Bird Yanukovych
Yulia Tymoshenko: Jules Tymoshenko
Oleh Tyahnybok: Al Tyahnybok
Volodymyr Klitschko: Walter Klitschko
Vitaly Klitschko: Wally Klitschko

As I said: It makes sense to me. Oh, and by the way, my favorite American president is, of course, the great Yuri Washington.

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