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The Stress of Foreign Nomina Propria (Kiev, Ukraine)

With the incessant bleating of the media about the Ukrainian crisis comes the usual mispronunciation of foreign nomina propria (proper nouns), specifically the stress of polysyllables. There is no reason, of course, to expect broadcasters (hosts, presenters, correspondents et al.) to have any knowledge of foreign languages, let alone the Slavic ones, but there are well-established traditional norms in English for the placement of stress in items such as Kiev and Ukraine that are being flouted seemingly at every turn.

The capital of Ukraine, Kiev, has initial stress in both Ukrainian and Russian. However, in line with the general tendency of American English to subject all foreign place names in particular to what has been called in earlier posts the “Frenchification rule” (= stressing the last syllable, especially with dissyllabic items), one constantly hears the stress being displaced to  the second syllable, producing Kiév instead of Kíev.

The situation of Ukraine seems to take a directly reverse direction, rendering standard Ukráine as Úkraine, with stress on the first rather than the second syllable. (Interestingly––though not strictly relevantly––the older Russian norm has stress on the second syllable of Украина, whereas the contemporary norm evinces stress on the third syllable.) Here the culprit is the dialectal undercurrent (Southern American English) which tends to equalize all dissyllabic items without constituent structure (NB!) by placing their stress on the first syllable, as in dialectal gúitar for normative guitár; note the extant extension to items with more than two syllables, as in dialectal ínsurance for normative insúrance.

In a strange twist of linguistic irony, those Americans who otherwise speak standard English but pronounce Ukraine with stress on the initial vowel are unwittingly rendering the name of the country into something less dignified than what would be accorded the appellation of a full-fledged nation by recurring to what sounds in American English like its “hick” version. This actually mirrors the attitude of older Russians toward Ukraine, which in pre-Revolutionary times was called “Little Russia” and its inhabitants uniformly considered rustics.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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