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Medvedev: hard to pronounce for some!

Carl Masthay

Medvedev - the new Russian president’s name (Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (Дмитрий Анатольевич Медведев) is pronounced /myih-DVYEH-dyif/. This needs some explanation. Some Russian consonants intrinsically include or produce palatalization, the sound of “y” before high vowels, like /yeh/, which is written simply as “e” as opposed to the nonpalatal “e” /eh/ (Cyrillic backward “e” - э). Here the m, v, and d are palatals. Next Russian stress rules require that the primary stressed syllable produces a clear, full, strong, original sound (here /‑dvyeh‑/), whereas the vowel of the syllable or syllables preceding it is weak and the syllable vowel after it is also weak (somewhat the way English polysyllabic words work). That /yeh/ goes to /yih/ in both cases here. Most Slavic languages also devoice final originally voiced consonants, thus “v” usually goes to /f/ unless there is a following voiced consonant in a following syllable or word.

So what does “Medvedev” mean? The suffix ‑ev/‑ov means ‘(son) of’ (a nominalized reduction from genitive “-ogo” usually pronounced with weak vowels /ova/, which should not be confused with feminine nominative surnames in ‑ova) and Russian medved´ (with a prime sign for the mark of palatalization) ‘bear’, probably descriptive of a clumsy, bulky person. Among animals the bear was of special consequence. Its original Proto-Indo-European name *rktho-, later *rkso-, resulting in Sanskrit rkshos, Greek arktos, Latin ursus, Armenian arj, Celtic *artos, was taboo in Gaelic (math-ghamhain /mahowin/, Mahon ‘good-calf’!) and in all Slavic languages, and it was alluded to instead as the ‘honey-eater’ (med-v-éd´), partly through fear perhaps and partly as a rival in the search for honey (Russian mëd /myot/) in the woods, from which was made hydromel, or ‘mead’ (Russian mëd, Greek methy [source of our chemical prefix “methy(l)”]). The v arose from the noun theme u in hypothetical *medu-yed´ ‘honey-eating’, like Sanskrit madh(u) v‑ád- ‘sweet-eat’. The Polish reflex of ‘bear’ is a further taboo word with negative aspersion: niedźwiedź, with miód /myoot/ ‘honey’ debased into niedź- under the influence of nie ‘no, not’.

[Written by Carl Masthay, 18 March 2008, paraphrasing Entwistle and Morison 1949, Unbegaun 1972,  Preobrazhensky 1951, and other sources]

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