Dmitry Whatever

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I saw it coming as soon as Tim Russert cornered Senator Hillary Clinton into naming President Vladimir Putin's heir. She dodged, ducked and plunged into the now famous: "Um, Med-medvedova, whatever."

Nobody thought the worse of her. In fact, it drew one of the few sympathetic murmurs in the debate. Russian names are just not something most Americans can do. And if the blogs and online pronunciation guides I've checked are any indication, they never will.

One expert on National Public Radio thought that "Medvedev," the way Russians pronounce it, is simply alien to the American tongue. But admitting that is alien to the American spirit, so there are many places to seek guidance. The Voice of America offers this phonetic spelling: "mehd-V(y)EHD-yehf." They also provided a voice recording by a man who tried it -- in all fairness, he does a pretty good "yehf." But it's not a sound likely to make President Dmitry Medvedev turn around.

It reminded me of advice The Moscow Times gave to an actress in Boston who had to do "The Cherry Orchard" and needed help with names like "Boris Borisovich Semyonov-Pishchik." The reply from a bilingual reporter was very thorough, discussing not only specific letters ("in pronouncing t, d and n, the tongue must touch the upper teeth, not the alveolus like in English"), but the preferred mindset ("perhaps because we tend to be lazy, the mouth muscles are not so tense as in speaking English"). I speak Russian and tested some of the prescriptions and found that I never touch the upper teeth with my tongue nor anything that comes up when I google "alveolus."

The lazy part? Slander!

I suppose experts would say that we form our tongues and mouths in a certain way in childhood and that all but a few oral contortionists are thereby doomed to speak every language but our own with an atrocious accent. Everybody who watches basketball or American football on French television knows George Eddy, a sportscaster with so brutal an American twang that it takes a while to realize he's speaking fluent French.

One of the ways we compensate for the difficulty of foreign names is by adopting our own way of saying them. I once worked with an editor who spoke pretty good French, but used only the feminine article "la," never "le." Why, I finally asked? "Oh, it sounds SO much more French that way," he drawled.

By the same token, Maria Sha-RA-pova has become so familiar as Sha-ra-POH-va that the World Tennis Association offers it as the official pronunciation. When I pronounce Putin's first name the way Russians do -- Vluh-DEE-meer -- people look at me as a huddling mass still yearning to be American. In English, of course, it's VLAH-de-meer and it's BO-ris, not Buh-REES, as the Russians have it.

Remember that great exchange in "Young Frankenstein":

Frankenstein: "You must be EE-gor."

Igor: "No, it's pronounced EYE-gor."

Frankenstein: "But they told me it was EE-gor."

Igor: "Well, they were wrong then, weren't they?"

Russians have their own problems with American names, but the current presidential candidates do not pose a major challenge. Obama leaps the language barrier, and Kleenton and Makkayn are easy. Luckily, none have a "th" in their name, a sound Russians eschew. Remember Margaret Techer?

With time, we will learn to cope with Medvedev. We overcame Khrushchev, adopted Rostropovich and cheer hockey players, ballerinas and tennis stars.

Medvedev is as elemental as medved -- Russian for bear. So: Launch with "med" as in "he's off his meds"; put the accent on the "VEH," as in "venomous;" and trail off with a lazy "dev" with just a hint of z and i: "dziev."

Altogether now: Med-VEH-dziev. Whatever.

Serge Schmemann is editor of the editorial page of the International Herald Tribune, where this comment appeared.