Professor Polistra finds it interesting that the correct pronunciation of the new Russian leader Medvedev has become a Campaign Issue (admittedly small) while the correct pronunciation of Putin was never discussed. Yet the same problem applies to both.
Hillary pronounced the new leader Med-ved-ev, while it should be something like
Mid-vyed-yef. The "correction" applied by some TV hosts is only partial, but still the difference is noticeable enough to American ears that it seemed worth noticing and criticizing.
By contrast, most Americans pronounce the current leader Pyootin, but it should be Pootin. Yet nobody has ever commented on this error.
Why? Because the phonemic
status of u and e in English is different.
In Russian, ye and e are strictly different sounds, represented by different letters. And in Russian, yoo and oo are strictly different sounds, represented by different letters.
In English the ye sound occurs only initially, in a few words like yes, yellow, yet. In those cases we feel the Y as a consonant, not part of the vowel at all, so we hear ye as fully distinct from e, and the difference stands out to our ears.
But in English yoo and oo are only partly and confusedly distinct. In many words, yoo "happens automatically" depending on which consonants are nearby.
Technically, yoo and oo are allophones
of the oo phoneme, because the choice is determined by nearby sounds. Compare cue and sue ... or pew, few, and new.
We automatically say yoo when the sound in front is velar (k) or labial (p,b,m,f), but we leave the sound as oo when the sound in front is dental (s,n,t).
'Putin' isn't a word in English, but think of 'computing' which contains the same letters, and will always have yoo in the middle syllable.
Brits tend to say yoo after all types of consonants, not just the labials and velars. Thus the famous riddle about Tyoosday versus Toosday.
To make it even more confyoosing, there are some words where the spelling "oo" overrides the automatic choice. Cutie and beauty have yoo as they should, but cootie and booty have oo despite the same initial sound.
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Sidenote 1: This discussion would have been much clearer with proper phonetic symbols and Russian letters, but Blogspot doesn't handle font changes well.
Sidenote 2: The old riddle, in case there's anyone who hasn't heard it, goes like this. "Do you pronounce the second day of the week Tyoosday or Toosday? Give up? It's Monday, you fool! Ha ha ha ha ha!"