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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lost in Transliteration

The last name of the president of Russia is Putin, right? Not so fast. Paris, we have a pronunciation problem. To solve it, we must plunge headlong in the argumentative world of transliteration -- the representation of sounds of words from one alphabet in another alphabet. However you do it, with whatever authority you cite, some native speaker will surely tell you that you're all wrong.

We in the English-speaking world, and in most of the Western world using the 26-letter Roman alphabet, write the Russian president's name as "Putin.'' That's not a good transliteration from the 33-letter modern Cyrillic alphabet, which the Russians use, because our Roman spelling suggests we pronounce it PYOO-tin, as in "putrid,'' or PUT-in, as in "put-down.''

We are officially informed by the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin pronounces the u in this name with neither the "yew" sound nor the u in "put" or "but." If we wanted our spelling to represent accurately the sound of the way Russians pronounce the first syllable of his name, it would be POO-tin or POU-tin. Our mouthing of that last syllable would still be a little off because of what phonologists, the scientists of sounds, call "the soft t,'' which doesn't exist in our alphabet. The closest I can get in Roman spelling to the sound of his name in Russian would be POO-tsyin, or POO-tyeen.

In France, they do the right thing by Putin's first syllable, spelling it Pou (as in the French ou, "where,'' and fou, "crazy''). But their difficulty arises in that second syllable, "tsyin," which we approximate with in. The French have a linguistic problem that may also be a diplomatic problem. It's the affair of the spelling of in.

In English, we see the letter i followed by n, and we're in: With our tongues pressed against our palates, we find plenty of room at the inn. But in French, the sound represented by in is pronounced nasally, at the back of the throat, and comes out somewhat like "anh." English does not have a sound quite like it, except for a kind of derisive snort that often precedes "geddoutahere."

Now we come to the reason that French is known as the language of diplomacy. In France's official documents, as well as uniformly in the French press, Vladimir Putin's last name is spelled Poutine. As a natural result, it is pronounced poo-TEEN, rhyming with our "routine.'' The French undoubtedly know that is not the way he or his compatriots, or even President Bush looking into his soul, pronounce Putin's name. (To head off a torrent of e-mail from Quebec, let me acknowledge that poutine is also French-Canadian comfort food: fried potatoes suffused in cheese and dollops of salty gravy.)

Why the error in transliteration? Official French sources tell me that because the sound that we write as in has no place in French pronunciation, an e has been added to make the sound more amenable to the French tongue, and that's all there is to it. They note -- somewhat stiffly, anticipating the direction of my inquiry -- that they have added a vowel to other names for this purpose. But other, more conspiratorial linguists suggest that the spelling of Putin in English would be pronounced as putain in French -- that is, sounding close to pew-TANH.

Putain, in French, means "prostitute; whore,'' or in current correctese, "sexual-services provider.'' According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the probable source, slightly corrupted, of the U.S. slang term "poontang," a derogation of women as a means of sexual gratification.

Hence, the rejection of the English spelling of Putin and the switch to Poutine, pronounced poo-TEEN. Small wonder that French arbiters of usage and pronunciation -- perhaps out of commendable delicacy, in the interest of the avoidance of offense and the leers of pundits -- have embraced phony phonetics, unanimously choosing to mispronounce the name of the president of Russia.

In digging up this lecherous speculation, I tripped over a matter of concern to those seriously interested in global communication. For years, the transliterati at the Library of Congress, the British Museum, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and other scholarly institutions have been breaking their heads over ways to bring order to the somewhat slapdash way we express sounds in different languages. Meanwhile, acting unilaterally, the Russian government has worked out its own plan for handling Russian names on its passports to make life simpler for immigration officials of other nations.

"These are deep waters," says Michael Newcity of Duke University's Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, "because there are many different systems for transliterating words written in Cyrillic alphabets into Latin letters. ... The permutations increase when you realize that there are different Cyrillic alphabets for Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, etc."

So what's the big deal if there are different keystrokes for different folks? Here's the problem for globocrats: Most computer operating systems are based on the Roman alphabet. Maybe, like a new Caesar, the imperial computer will impose our present system on the rest of the world, forcing Slavic and Asian systems into our alphabet soup. Or maybe the United Nations will find a new raison d'etre (that's ray-ZON DET-ra) in standardizing a system to encode Roman and Cyrillic letters and Chinese and Japanese characters to make them computer-friendly on all the world's screens. Others of a bellicose bent may argue that we should enshrine diversity and let Caesar's letter symbols fight out the future communications battle with the alphabet of St. Cyril and word symbols of the predecessors of Confucius.

No one system is likely to win out. For users of tomorrow's Internet to accurately cross cultures, experts in phonetics and transliteration will first have to create and agree on a standard system. Only then will President Poutine get his real name back.

William Safire is a political and language columnist at The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.