How to pronounce Tchaikovsky (??????????)

July 26, 2009 at 02:47 AM ·

How to pronounce Tchaikovsky (??????????)

One of the difficulties facing English-speaking media professionals and musicians includes how to pronounce the names of certain Russian classical composers. This Moscow correspondent happens to serve as part of a Yahoo Answers team on questions about Russia and every so often the question comes up. It surfaced again recently so here is some help.
?????????? is a rather easy word if you know Russian. Therein of course lies the problem as not everyone speaks the language, so here’s hoping for an explanation that is simple yet complete.
Before getting started we should make a comment about the T most transliterations place at the beginning. Why this is done is a great mystery because there is no T, nor anything resembling a T sound anywhere in the word.
With that being said we begin with a word you already know, but which unfortunately misleads many who try to say this name correctly: ???. Many readers say this word all the time. If you’ve ever strolled into a Starbucks, for example, and ordered a “chai” (tea), that is exactly what ??? is...normally. It’s the Russian word for tea and it sounds just as if it came from a Starbucks menu board.
However, in the case of the name of this Russian composer Russian grammar will take over how the syllable is formed in this instance. Because of the grouping of letters in syllables two and three, the “ah” in ??? is going to take on more of a “e” flavor so that when ?????????? is spoken, it begins as “che.”
The second syllable can be just as tricky because there is a literal orchestra of grammar going on in these 3 short letters. ??? is normally spoken just like it looks: kah-oh-veh, or “kov” in English. The “kah” is fine so lets pick things up with the O. A Russian O only sounds like “oh” when stressed. At all other times it’s converted to an “ah” (a) sound. In this instance the O carries the stress so it remains an “Oh.” In case you were wondering, Russian vowels, of which there are 10 in two pairs of 5, always carry the stress. The stress is also sounded across the syllable making it seem as if the entire syllable is stressed.
So far, in the second syllable we have kah-oh and now what do we make of the veh (?)? Some listeners swear they hear “cough” in that kov. That is pretty close, but not quite exact. “Veh” (?) is a consonant and counted among a group of consonants known as voiced consonants. Equally, there are “de-voiced” consonants that are substituted when needed. ? (veh) is a voiced consonant and when it is part of a cluster of consonants or at the end of a word, it must be de-voiced.
This same principle explains how the word vodka (?????) is easily mispronounced by non-Russian speakers. The consonant “deh” (?) in vodka must be de-voiced in favor of its counterpart, a “teh” (?), so the Russian word for vodka sounds correct when heard as “VOdT-ka.”
So in this k-o-v, what is the counterpart of the voiced ? (veh)? It is the Cyrillic letter ? (ehf), which is similar to an English “f.” Perhaps you’ve wondered why a Russian speaker calls an auto (????) as an “ahf-to.” It’s the same principle of converting the “veh” to “ehf” in certain consonant groupings. In summary, the name of composer ?????????? should be spoken as “che-KOhF-skii.”
Before leaving lets take a good at the ending. ???? is hard to transliterate because there is really nothing quite like the letter ? in the English language. ? is spoken as “ehs” (s) in most cases, ? is “kah” and ? is “e.” The ? however is a longer e and when placed next to each other, ??, creates a very long “e” sound.
So, with a little practice you will have it mastered. Remember to convert the tea (chai) to “che” by dropping the “ah,” put the stress on the O vowel in the second syllable, and convert the voiced “veh” to a devoiced “ehf.” At that point saying “che-KOhF-skii” should be a breeze.

Finally, would you like to hear ?????????? spoken by a Russian native? Simply copy and paste the Cyrillic spelling and paste it into the link below. Select Russian as the language and click on the “say it” button:

Replies (6)

July 26, 2009 at 05:11 AM ·

Hi Yakov,

Thanks! We had a thread about this some time ago -- should the stress fall on the first, or on the second syllable? Turned out to be the second, as is apparent from your detailed analysis, too.

Would you believe that in a course of Russian on Dutch TV, in the late sixties/early seventies, a Mr. Smirnov, hired as the Native Speaker, pronounced the name with the first syllable stressed? I still don't know if that was due to local variation, or if he was just pulling our leg.


July 26, 2009 at 01:36 PM ·

I have my own theory about why the T is there. I have no academic linguistic credibility whatsoever but I'll share it because I think it could be viable

I  am supposing French and English took Tchaikovsky's name from German after he made headlines in the music center of Europe there. The Germans have a somewhat awkward way to literate the "Ch" sound. They take the "sh" sound and add a "T" in front. What we get then is Tschaikowski. This "Tsch" carries redundant letters in both English and French. The simplest way to make it look less strange is to remove the S. Having the T in front of Ch doesn't do anything anyway, and we see it in words like "pitch" and "ditch". I think this way also explains why from time to time in the English-speakign world, we still encounter Tchaikovsky's name spelled with a "W" as Tchaikowsky, I know I've seen that before in articles and programs. No academic would transliterate a "V" sound from Russian into a "W" in English, so people from another profession (journalism) must have imported his name before anyone else. Thsi is just my own theory.

Think of how much the Germans influence music anyway. And even now, in the 21st century, I came across an edition of Scriabin works by Peters Ediiton. Of course they are German, but this edition is in English, yet they chose to spell his name in big bold letters on the front as "Skrjabin". I think seeing these German transliterations had a big effect when Tchaikovsky was just getting known outside of Russia.

July 26, 2009 at 03:14 PM ·

Some academic writers on music (Tarushkin, for example) have taken to spelling the name "Chaikovsky," which makes the pronunciation more transparent for English speakers, leaving the de-voicing of the "v" and the reduction of "ai" to "i" as the only problems. 

The initial "T" in the traditional spelling seems to come from French, which represents the Russian and English "ch" sound (which is foreign to French and only occurs in words of foreign origin) as "tch."

Unfortunately, what seem to have been Cyrillic characters in the original post show up as strings of question marks.

July 26, 2009 at 03:12 PM ·

'I came across an edition of Scriabin works by Peters Ediiton. Of course they are German, but this edition is in English, yet they chose to spell his name in big bold letters on the front as "Skrjabin".'

The "i" or "j" in the transcription of Scriabin doesn't represent a separate Russian vowel or consonant--it indicates that the "r" is palatalized, that is, pronounced with the back of the tongue flattened against the palate (a difficult sound for English speakers).  In accurate transliterations of Russian, palatalization is often represented not by a separate letter but by an apostrophe: "Skr'abin."

In the Russian spelling, the palatalization of the consonant "r" is indicated by a vowel symbol that's different from the vowel symbol used to represent Russian "a" after a consonant that isn't palatalized.  The Cyrillic symbol for "a" after a non-palatalized consonant looks like the "a" in the Roman alphabet but the symbol for "a" after a palatalized consonant looks like a backwards "R"--the symbol that's often used to represent "r" in fake Russian.  At the beginning of a word it's actually pronounced "ya" and in isolation as a monosyllabic word it's the first-person singular pronoun "I."

July 27, 2009 at 08:38 PM ·

Although half of my ancestry is Russian and my paternal grandparents spoke in their native tongue often, I wasn't around the language enough to learn anything, and I don't know or work with any individuals from Russia. But I'm trying hard to get the gist of how to pronounce Tchaikovsky's name correctly. Heck, it took me 60 years to learn to spell it.

From reading this thread, and paying attention to those of Russian background (especially musicians) occasionally interviewed on TV, I'd like to ask if the following phonetic attempt is correct......"Che-KWO'-fskee"  - The "KWO" sounds to me almost like the word "cough" with a slight "w" after the "c" and the lips rounded for the rest of the "cough" slightly in an "o" as one about to whistle.

Have I got it right?

September 1, 2009 at 07:31 PM ·

You think English transliterations are bizarre? Try staring at a piece of Polish- or Hungarian-published sheet music for a good thirty seconds before figuring out who "Szosztakovicz" and "Csajkovszkij" are. :P

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