Russian chess names — a guide for the perplexed

by admin on December 12, 2007

In his ChessLecture on Alexander Alekhine last week, Bryan Smith talked a little bit about the pronunciation of Alekhine’s name. The “correct” Russian pronunciation is <ahl-YO-kheen>. The Russian “kh” sounds like the Scottish “ch” in “Loch,” except that here it’s so soft that it’s just a slightly vocalized “h.” In some other Russian words you can go for the full throat-clearing “kkkkkhhh” sound, but not here.

The most common English pronunciation, on the other hand, is <AL-ek-ine> or <AL-ek-hine>. I hate this pronunciation, because it’s wrong on four counts–the accent is in the wrong place, the “e” is wrong, the “kh” has been separated into two sounds, and the last syllable rhymes with “fine,” which is wrong. A much better version, which I approve of, is Smith’s way, <ahl-YE-khin>. This only gets one thing wrong, and he says there is evidence that Alekhine himself pronounced it this way, after many years spent in France.

Why are Russian names hard to pronounce? Actually, they shouldn’t be. Russian is a 99 percent phonetic language, which means that words are pronounced exactly as they are written, and the few exceptions are easy to learn. The mischief comes when Russian words are transliterated into European languages. Different languages do this in different ways. For example, the French put a silent “e” at the end of “Alekhine” so that the final syllable would be pronounced correctly. Without the “e”, the last two letters would be rhyme with the French word “jardin” — the “n” would be silent and the “i” would be a prolonged “eh” sound that doesn’t even exist in Russian. However, when English readers encountered “Alekhine,” they interpreted the silent “e” completely differently. In English, the silent “e” converts the “i” from short (as in “fin”) to long (as in “fine”). That long “i” sound is almost nonexistent in Russian, and certainly not the right pronunciation here. So for an Anglophone reader, “Alekhin” is a much better transliteration. The fact that we say “in” rather than “een” at the end is of comparatively minor importance, because this syllable is unstressed and so you can barely tell the difference.

Another dismal example of how transliterations into different languages make things confusing is the letter “shcha”. This sound, “shch,” is written with just one letter in Russian, and most of the time it sounds like a just barely prolonged “sh.” The “sh” does venture in the direction of “ch” near the end, but without really quite getting there.

Unfortunately, each language has its own way of transliterating the “shcha”. In English, it’s “shch”. In French, it’s “chtch”. (That’s because “ch” is the French version of “sh,” and “tch” is the French version of “ch”.) In German, it’s “schtsch”! So to pronounce the Russian name correctly, you’ve got to know what language it’s been converted into!

So… Let’s look at the currently hardest-to-pronounce Russian name in the chess world: Ian Nepomniachtchi. When we look at this, we realize that for some reason this name got transliterated into French first. Probably it was translated by some guy at FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs). The English version of the last name should be “Nepomnyashchi,” which is already a good bit easier. I’d venture to say that you can now pronounce it without my help. Actually, the first syllable should have a “y” as in “nyet,” but I think that “Nyepomnyaschchi” looks unnecessarily clumsy.

The first name is a whole separate problem, because it unfortunately looks exactly like a standard English name, pronounced with two syllables, <EE-uhn>. Blame the French FIDE bureaucrat again. In Russian this name has only ONE syllable, not two, and it’s pronounced <yahn>. There are only two letters in the name, “ya” and “n.” However, I think that most Americans would mispronounce it if it were written “Yan” (They would make it rhyme with “Dan,” when really it should rhyme with “Don.”) So the most acceptable transliteration might actually be the more Germanic one, “Jan.” I think that most Americans would pronounce this correctly.

So: <Yahn Nyeh-pom-NYASHCH-ee> is the right way to say it.

By the way, this name is interesting because the word “nepomnyaschchi” actually has a meaning in Russian; it’s “the one who doesn’t remember.”

One more issue is involved with pronouncing Russian names, and this was also alluded to by Bryan. When a Russian has lived in the West for a long time, should the name be pronounced in the Russian way or in the way that is most typical for his or her adopted country? This is a gray area, but I would tend to favor the latter. Some examples:

Lev Alburt — the correct Russian pronunciation would be <Lyov AHL-boort>. But who in America would recognize this person? By now, I think he is permanently “Lev” (rhymes with “rev”) “Albert” (as in “Albert Einstein”).

Irina Krush — The Russian pronunciation would be <Ee-REE-nah Kroosh>. However, she has lived in America since age 5, and I doubt that she pronounces her own name that way. Eugene Perelshteyn, my fellow ChessLecturer who definitely knows Russian and knows Irina too, pronounces her name in pure American style, <EYE-REE-nuh Krush>. So unless I meet her someday and she tells me otherwise, I guess that is the way I will pronounce it.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Dribbling December 13, 2007 at 1:11 am

In terms of letters, Konstantinopolsky is the longest chess player name I can think of (Gaprindashvili and Dus Chotimirsky do not quite cut it) although longer ones probably exist. On the minimalist side, Bu and many other oriental names come to mind but I wonder if a one letter name exists and even contemplate the fantastic possibility of a name with no letters. In the realm of dreams I see myself going over that famous, exciting, beauty prize game: Konstantinopolsky vs.


Carina December 13, 2007 at 7:31 am

I think that it’s part of the fun of language to have other languages pronounce it according to their own rules. I don’t particularly wish for non-Danish people to pronounce my name as though they are. 😀 The music that’s woven into every language sometimes makes a name sound entirely new just by changing the rythm and what’s smooth and rough, which is cool because being called the same thing the same way every day isn’t really so interesting anyways. Effective, yes, but a trick to make us think we’re still the same person, even after decades of time!


admin December 13, 2007 at 2:05 pm

When I was in college I liked the idea of a “team without a name,” so I played on an intramural basketball team that we simply called “!” Unfortunately, we lost all of our games, so our idea did not attract any imitators. I was hoping that it would, so that we could have had scores like ! 56, ? 44.


Carina December 14, 2007 at 3:31 am

Bwahaha, nice. I like this quote from your latest Rook lecture btw:

“So a half open file is a file that only has one Pawn on it.. or a Pawn of only one colour.”


steve davis December 30, 2007 at 2:13 pm

On the cover of the book of Alekhine’s games that was done by a fellow Russian–and whose name just now escapes me–Alekhine’s name on the Russian cover uses the letter “e” (ye), and not the letter “e with two little dots above it” (yo), so apparently the Russians also believes his name was pronounced Al YE kin, and not Al YO kin (which is what it would be pronounced like if it used the two-dotted e).


gemars January 9, 2015 at 1:43 am

It is simply this way Aljechin. ther is no -jo- but only -je- . pronounced Alyechyn. ( ch like in Loch Ness).


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