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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Gomer Pyle and Homer Sound Same to Russians




At one point in the Oscar-winning movie Kolya, a Czech character is introduced to a Russian: "This is Uncle Houdek, but you'll say Goudek, I suppose. Russians can't pronounce the letter 'h'." While this is not exactly true, one can understand why someone might think so. The Russian confusion between "g" and "h" can make for some amusing moments.


Essentially, as it was explained to me, the system of transliterating "h" by "g" stems from the 18th century. At that time, it was more or less arbitrarily decided that the hard combination "ch" as in Christ (Khristos) or Christina (Khristina) would be transliterated with the Russian kh and a normal "h" would be a "g." Some Russians I've spoken with believe that there is a natural bias against the sound kh, which figures in some undignified Russian words, but I don't know if this played a role or not.


In modern times, though, the kh transliteration for "h" has become more standard. This gives us, for instance, Khamfri Bogart and Khillari Klinton. We all still live, however, with the consequences of the original transliteration pattern.


Thus, for instance, the venerable Greek writer Homer was saddled with the Russian name Gomer, which sounds considerably less distinguished to the English ear. On the other hand, the German poet Heinrich Heine, whose last name also provokes smirks among English speakers, became a more benign Genrich Geine. Russians also read a not immediately recognizable English author named Gardi.


To my ear, some of the other more amusing constructions caused by this phenomenon are the names of U.S. president Gerbert Guver and the protagonist of Nabokov's Lolita, Gumbert Gumbert.


But along these lines, the grand prize goes to none other than Adolf Hitler. Aside from soundly thrashing his army and destroying the reich, the cruelest thing the Russians did to Hitler was to rechristen him Gitler. No matter how gruesome the conversation, I am always tempted to chuckle when Russians start talking about Gitler, Gimmler and the other gitlerovtsy (Hitlerites).


Still more confusion is caused by the Russian "g," which, of course, is also used to transliterate the English letter "g." Sometimes Russian speakers have trouble figuring out which is which. As hard as it may be to believe, many Russians have trouble grasping the difference between Gomer Simpson and Gomer Pyle no matter how much you try to explain it to them.When I was sitting around with some Russian friends trying to come up with examples for this column, they were all very helpful. Gannibal, said one; Garvard, offered another.


"How about Gulliver?" asked a third, referring to the hero of Gulliver's Travels. "Yeah, that's a good one," answered the first.