Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"

The trial is now in the penalty phase, and I can't think of anything to say. So I'll talk about linguistics and orthography.

Looking at his name, you can tell he's from a country in the former Soviet Union. First, it's obviously a non-Russian name, but it has the ov/ev ending common in Russian names. The president of Kazakhstan is Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the president of Uzbekistan is Islam Karimov. I don't know whether the intent was to seem Russian or just to make it fit into Russian grammar better.

The real giveaway, though, is the first name. Like many languages, Russian does not have the English "j" sound as in joy, jam, Juliet. But it does have a "zh" sound, like the "s" in "pleasure" or the "z" in "azure." So it transliterates the "j" sound as "dzh." Try saying it. (Incidentally, "dzh" doesn't look quite as awkward in Cyrillic, where it's only two letters:  дж)

In French, as you may know, the letter j is pronounced "zh". They transliterate our "j" sound as "dj". Thus we get Django Reinhardt, who was born in Belgium. Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding, I'm certain that there never was an American slave named Django; Americans would have spelled it Jango.

Djibouti is only one of the many places where French orthography has left its scar on the map of Africa. My favorite is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, which under the British Empire would've been called Wagadugu. Other than that, I don't know whether Africans were worse off under the French or the British, though apparently the Belgians were the worst.

Another sound French lacks is the English "ch" sound in "cheese," which it writes "tch" ("ch" is pronounced "sh"). Chad managed to escape calling itself Tchad, which is what it's called in French. But poor Tchaikovsky somehow ended up that way in English, instead of Chaikovsky

Oh, and the "kh" in "Dzhokhar" is of course the German "ch" sound. For Americans, he pronounced that as an "h".

On second thought, I do have one comment about the trial. There may be good arguments for putting Tsarnaev to death. That he gave the finger to the camera in his cell is not one of them. The prosecution is being shamelessly manipulative, and not very truthful. This is a serious business. Take it seriously, Department of Justice.

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