Posted in Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

Tsesarevich, Tsaritsa, and Transliteration



Until fairly late in 2014, I, like most non-Russians, didn’t even know about the Tsesarevich title. All my reading about Russian history, and all the Russian literature I’d read, hadn’t yet enlightened me to this fact. However, now that I understand the difference between the titles Tsesarevich and Tsarevich, I haven’t misused them ever since.

Tsesarevich headline

In 1721, Peter the Great discontinued the title of Tsar in favour of Imperator, Emperor. Thus, the title of Tsarevich for the heir apparent or presumptive fell into disuse, as did the title Tsarevna (except for Tsar Ivan V’s daughters, one of whom became Empress Anna). From this point on, the Tsar’s daughters were titled Tsesarevna (later Grand Duchess, the Russian form of which actually translates as Grand Princess). Starting in 1773, Tsesarevna became the title for the wife of the Tsesarevich.

In 1762, upon the ascension of the pathetic Tsar Peter III to the throne, he created the title Tsesarevich for his son Pavel (the lovely woman-hater we can blame for having indirectly caused so much trouble in the monarchy at the end, thanks to his draconian, male-only inheritance laws no one had the guts to revise). In 1797, the title became law. The Tsarevich title, from then on out, merely referred to any son of a Tsar, not just the heir apparent or presumptive.

Tsesarevich highlighted

Most non-Russophiles innocently use the title Tsarevich and have no idea Tsesarevich even exists, but people in Imperial Russia certainly only referred to their heirs by the proper legal title, Tsesarevich. In the case of Aleksey, the last heir to the Russian throne, both titles are technically correct, since he was the only boy in the family, but no one in Russia ever called him Tsarevich.



Like Tsesarevich, the title Tsaritsa is largely unknown among non-Russophiles. For a long time, I too innocently used the more common title seen in the English-speaking world, Tsarina. However, this title isn’t just legally incorrect, like Tsarevich. It doesn’t even exist in Russian.

From 1721, the official titles for the Imperial couple were Imperator (Emperor) and Imperatritsa (Empress). Tsaritsa was never a legal title, but widely used informally and unofficially. It’s kind of a pet name for the Tsar’s wife. I prefer it to Empress, because it’s just more Russian.



I personally use letter-by-letter transliteration from Cyrillic, except in cases where exact transliteration looks awkward and weird. For example, Ukraine’s capital truly transliterates as Kyyiv, but I use the official transliteration preferred by the Ukrainian people, Kyiv. I also don’t render soft and hard signs with apostrophes, since even I think that’s nitpicky.

Different people have different transliteration styles, and I can live with a style that’s not my own so long as it’s consistent. However, some styles seem more old-fashioned than others, like “translating” certain names, or “translating” names of royalty. I understand certain people are much better known by Anglo names in the English-speaking world, like Peter the Great and Nicholas II, but it’s really arrogant and Anglocentric to use names like Serge, Elizabeth, Michael, Marie, and Eugene for people who were only ever called by Russian names.

Spellings like Aleksandr, Anastasiya, Mariya, Vasiliy, Tatyana, and Feliks only look strange and unfamiliar at first. Once you’re used to them, it seems strange to see the more old-fashioned transliterations.

For more details on my transliteration style, please see this post.

Posted in Names, Writing

July IWSG—A rather arcane worry


It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. It’s also my 12th anniversary with my belovèd All Things Must Pass, my next-favorite album.

I’m stripping all my Russian novels of their accent marks and will also be republishing You Cannot Kill a Swan without accents. It’ll be the book’s third edition; the second edition replaced the inaccurate title Tsarevich with the proper title, Tsesarevich.

After 19 years, it just starting feeling pretentious, unnecessary, and awkward, not to mention slowing down my typing speed. I also began to dislike my inconsistencies, since I didn’t use accents when I wasn’t 100% where the stress falls (e.g., Dinara, Arkadiya, Rostislav, Leontiy), nor for Ya, Yu, Ye, or Y (e.g., Tatyana, Yuriy, Yeltsina, Chernomyrdina). I think it started as a way to overcompensate for how badly I transliterated when I was just learning the Russian alphabet at 13, and then over the years, I just justified it as my personal style and a courtesy to folks who wouldn’t know how to pronounce those names and words.

I got used to seeing and writing certain names without vowels, like Konev(a), Malenkov(a), Lebedev(a), and Vsevolod, and it was kind of odd to begin writing them with accents. I’m more used to them without than with. Russian isn’t like Hungarian, French, or Spanish, where it’s normal to encounter accent marks on names (e.g., Ramón, Kálmán, Irène). Accents aren’t normally rendered outside of dictionaries and language textbooks.

Some folks might find it pretentious how I use a lot of British spellings when I live in the U.S. I’m fine with code-switching when I’m writing for an American audience, like writing pajamas instead of pyjamas, or color instead of colour. My brain can’t switch off spellings I’ve used for years, like learnt, aeroplane, spoilt, travelled, and cancelled, but at least that’s not as weird as rendering a name like Viktóriya, Maríya, Fédya, Pátya, and Dúsya.

Did you find it pretentious or helpful to encounter accent marks in my posts where I shared excerpts of my Russian novels? I’m really sorry if that nitpicky habit annoyed anyone!

Posted in Languages

My transliteration style

When I was sixteen and majorly getting back into my Russophilia, I developed a rather purist, some might say nit-picky, approach to transliteration. I do letter-for-letter transliteration and never “translate” personal names. I also go one step further and use accent marks when I know where the stress falls. Accents aren’t normally written outside of dictionaries and language textbooks, but I feel it’s a courtesy to provide a pronunciation guide. For example, knowing if O is stressed or unstressed impacts the pronunciation. When the accent falls on O, it’s pronounced like an English O, but when there’s no stress, it’s pronounced like a long A. For example, Boris is properly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss.

[Update: As of July 2015, I no longer use accent marks. It came to feel too pretentious and nitpicky even by my standards.]

When an accent falls on the vowels Ye, Ya, or Yu, I don’t use accents. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that might give the impression of those being separate letters in Russian, instead of one complete vowel.

My style of letter-for-letter transliteration seems to be a more modern style, whereas some of the alternate styles you might’ve seen are based in a more old-fashioned approach, of perhaps enforcing Anglo norms and expectations on Russian spellings. But for me, those older styles don’t always give the impression of the true pronunciation. For example, I originally thought Tatyana was pronounced Tat-ee-ann-a, because I’d only seen the spelling Tatiana. The more accurate Tatyana spelling suggests the true pronunciation, Taht-YAHN-ah.

The letter E is and isn’t the same as the English E. It can take the sound we expect of an E, but more often than not, it’s a YE sound. For example, Nadezhda is really pronounced Nahd-YEZH-dah, not Nad-ezh-da. When it makes sense, I render the E as Ye, so as to avoid pronunciational confusion. Why use the spelling Ekaterina when the name is really pronounced Ye-kaht-e-REEN-a?

Why have a double E or an E after another vowel? That gave me false pronunciational impressions for awhile, like with the Imperial town of Tsarskoye Selo. I thought, based on the Tsarskoe spelling, that it was pronounced Tsar-sko. I thought the Anglicized version of the Russified form of Ukraine’s capital was pronounced KEEV, based on the Kiev spelling. When my non-Ukrainian and non-Ukrainophile characters say the city’s name, it’s rendered as Kiyev. The proper Ukrainian spelling actually transliterates as Kyyiv, but that just looks confusing, so I go with their preferred transliteration of Kyiv. It’s particularly weird to see a double E, like in Gordeeva. That makes it look like the famous skater’s surname is pronounced Gor-DEEV-a, not Gor-de-YEV-a.

Look at these names, in their Russian spellings, and see the final letter they all have in common:


They all end in й, a letter which is transliterated as Y. Many times, these names are transliterated with an I on the end, though the I sound in Russian is represented by и nowadays, and used to be represented by I. If they truly ended in I, they’d be pronounced differently; e.g., Ahn-dre-ee instead of Ahn-DREY.

It seems rather old-fashioned to render Ya, the final letter of the alphabet, as IA. When I see a spelling like Daria, Katia, or Tatiana, I’m going to want to pronounce the I and A separately, whereas the YA tells me that’s just one vowel.

And look at these names, and see what final two letters they have in common:


All end in ий, IY. Most people use one or the other letter since they probably assume a spelling like Yuriy or Vasiliy looks too weird to an Anglophone, though both of those vowels are used together for a reason. They’d be pronounced a bit differently if they only ended in one or the other. And frankly, a spelling like Vitaliy or Lavrentiy looks a lot simpler and more normal than Kyyiv.

On the same note, many people choose to represent the -iya ending on certain names as just -ia, though I of course choose to use the full, letter-by-letter transliteration. Maybe some people think it looks weird, but I don’t see anything odd about spellings like Mariya, Anastasiya, Kseniya, Klavdiya, or Lidiya. It’s just how they’re written. Using the YA after the I tells me how to accurately pronounce the name. A subtle difference is still a difference.

Russian does not have a letter X. It uses the letters K and S to represent that sound. For example, Aleksandra or Kseniya, not Alexandra or Xenia. The Cyrillic letter that looks like X transliterates as KH, as in loch or Chanukah.

Finally, the letter Ë is transliterated as YO, not E or EO. What spelling of the Russian form of Theodore most accurately shows its pronunciation of FYO-dahr, Fyodor, Fedor, or Feodor? Although I do leave it as ë when it appears in a surname, like Gorbachëva or Likachëva. The alternatives look awkward, like Kyyiv. Sometimes it’s necessary to go with a simpler transliteration, even if it’s not 100% accurate.

Posted in Languages

Thoughts on Rosetta Stone

I recently decided to try out a free online demo of Rosetta Stone to refresh my Russian, which I haven’t actively used in a long time other than using my excellent dictionary and reading some other basic things. I’ve heard the family of my ex-“fiancé” babbling away in Russian with no respect for the fact that a native English-speaker was there, but that didn’t Magickally get my skills up to the level they used to be. These people never got the memo that it’s considered extremely rude to speak a foreign language in front of people you know can’t understand you. They can pretend they never left the USSR all they want when they’re in private, but when there’s an American guest in their home, it’s time to make the effort to tailor their behavior.

I was booming out the answers on the demo, but only because I’ve been studying the language on and off for 20 years. If I’d never had that base to make so many inroads in my memory, I would’ve been so lost. A lot of the pictures are so unclear, and I only picked the right one because I knew what the Russian phrase meant, like “She needs a map.” Otherwise I would’ve wondered what that picture really meant. Other times it was unclear what they were even asking you to do.

I later tried a demo in Greek, a language I’ve never studied, other than knowing the Greek alphabet and being well-read enough to know some Greek words and roots that made it into English. I got more things wrong, since I didn’t understand the grammar or context. It was also impossible to do the writing section, since I couldn’t figure out how to do a Greek letter with an accent mark.

I then tried a demo in Swedish, a language I only know a tiny little bit of but would be interested in learning someday. (Though probably Norwegian is my best bet, since it’s considered the middle Scandinavian language and the most mutually intelligible with Swedish and Danish.) I scored about the same as I did on Greek.

Finally I did a Spanish demo, since I had 7 years of Spanish but haven’t actively used it in awhile. I got almost perfect on that, except for one screen where it was completely unclear what they wanted. The phrase was “Yo como (I eat),” and it could’ve been any of the three pictures. I got it wrong; apparently the one I clicked was supposed to be “Él come (He eats).” How the hell am I supposed to guess that?

Since then I’ve been reading a lot of honest reviews of Rosetta Stone, and have found much the same sentiments. Issues like:

Poor customer support
Buggy software
Paranoid anti-pirating policies making it impossible to install on other computers or resell
The same template for every language, not taking into account culture or grammar
Culturally inaccurate pictures, like Nordic-looking kids in the Japanese program, African tribesmen in Dutch, and Asian women in Spanish
No translations or explanations of anything
Bad voice recognition that often doesn’t even pass native speakers
Phrases that aren’t useful, like “The boy is under the aeroplane” and “The plates are dirty”
Boring and repetitive
Teaching a very formal, robotic language, not the informal, casual language of the street

At best, this could be a decent supplementary aide for someone who just wants a refresher, or a resource in addition to a class, tutor, or textbook. But on its own, this isn’t anywhere near close to effective language-learning. It’s not even real immersion. There are some awesome language immersion programs, not to mention traveling to a foreign country and staying outside the Anglo bubbles, but this ain’t it by a long shot. Real immersion also involves learning real language, not phrases you might use to talk with a three-year-old.

Grammar is huge in learning a second language. It has to be explained so you can internalize the rules and naturally conjugate verbs or decline nouns after enough time with the basics. It helps knowing if a verb or declension is irregular, what patterns the grammar follows, how pronouns work, if the language is gendered, etc. Some languages need more attention to verbs, while others are heavier on declensions. That can’t be taught with a cookie-cutter approach.

Also, adults don’t learn language the same way kids do. Our brains are wired differently. Children pick up language naturally through immersion, but they also make a lot of mistakes and don’t know everything right away. For example, many young kids use overextension (e.g., “I throwed a ball” or “We goed to the store”) and call every man Daddy. They have to be corrected until they understand. We also don’t stop learning language after we can talk in complete sentences. A lot of the words I know and love using now weren’t words I learnt till high school English classes.

Russian (or any Slavic language for that matter) can be a real bitch to learn because of all the noun declensions, seven cases’ worth. Verb conjugation also gets trickier as you get further in, because of things like conditional and reflexive verbs. It’s sort of like a much-more-foreign Spanish—the language starts out easy and then gets harder, as compared to French, which starts out hard and then gets easier. Luckily, an adult has the advantage of a highly-developed brain, and can understand the explanation of why the endings on words are changing depending upon their location in a sentence. It starts making sense after enough time.

One of the numerous languages I’ve studied is Japanese. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know (including all the characters I used to know), but one of the things I still remember how to say is, “What is that?” That phrase takes three forms, depending upon whether the object is closest to you or the other person, or if it’s far away from both of you (like if you hear fireworks but can’t see them). Rosetta Stone wouldn’t explain that at all. I’m told counting in Japanese (and Korean) is a real bitch, and that isn’t explained either. Different languages have different rules, and you can’t just expect people to naturally pick them all up by guessing at the meanings of pictures.

These are the languages I’ve formally learnt or taught myself bits and pieces of over the years, in roughly the order I began. I’m not making a claim to be fluent in all of them, or even able to speak on a basic conversational level!

Hebrew (Everyone in my community was so amazed how I took to the alphabet like lightning at age 18, as compared to how long it took some other people to learn it as adults. I suppose already having learnt the Cyrillic, Greek, and Armenian alphabets helped with my language skills!)

I think that’s about it to date. I can also read some Catalán, Portuguese, and Ladino based on my knowledge of Spanish and the other Romance languages.

All of those languages I picked up just fine teaching myself, watching programs on TV, taking classes, reading simple stories and dialogues, and using dictionaries and instructional volumes. Not through clicking on pictures with meaningless phrases like “The women drink” and “The horse swims under the purple aeroplane.”

Posted in Languages, Russian novel, Writing

Using foreign language for flavor

If you’re writing a book set outside of your native land and language, or are writing about immigrants to your country, you should know how to season the story with just the right amount of foreign words, phrases, and lines. But just like with cooking, too much seasoning can ruin it, just as too little seasoning doesn’t grant any discernable flavor.

One of the reasons I’m able to read a little French is because I’ve read so many old books that were published when many people spoke French as a second language. After awhile, I no longer needed to look each word and verb conjugation up in my dad’s old 1910 French-English dictionary. (Since the books I was reading were so old, I obviously didn’t need a modern dictionary with words like “microwave” or “computer.”) I’ve also had two non-consecutive years of formal French instruction, but in some ways, translating lines and entire dialogues in those old books was a more effective learning tool for me.

But now, in the 21st century, French is no longer most people’s assumed second language. Many Americans don’t even know any other languages. I know I’m rare for having formally studied French, Spanish, Russian, Czech, and Italian, and having taught myself some German, Dutch, Japanese, Hungarian, Estonian, and bits and pieces of other languages. So today, when you fill up a book set outside of your culture and language with foreign words and dialogues, it just seems pretentious and annoying.

During my first major writing phase of my first Russian novel, I went crazy with copying out words and phrases from the old 1948 Russian-English dictionary I had out of the library. I was seriously planning to use all of these sentences in my novel somehow, and actually did use a fair number of them in the oldest original material. But I was a really bad transliterator at 13. I truly didn’t understand that some letters were two or four letters long when transliterated, like CH, SH, TS, KH, YO, and SHCH. I was writing S and C for most of those letters, embarrassingly enough.

Guess what came out during my endless rounds of edits, rewrites, and revisions a decade after finally finishing? All those pointless Russian sentences that I really only put in there to try to show off. Even if the very next line makes clear what was just said and you don’t need a whole glossary at the back, it’s still kind of annoying if you don’t speak the language. There was a YA Russian historical fiction novel I tried to read recently but just couldn’t finish (the first-person present tense ripped me right out of the story, not to mention the FOUR narrators were too indistinct), and it was loaded with Russian words and phrases. That’s no longer a little cultural flavor, that’s just pretentiousness and showing off.

What I do now is have a stock repertoire of basic words and phrases that impart just enough Russian (or Dutch, German, Hungarian, etc.) flavor, without bogging the reader down. For example, I like to use Russian terms of endearment, such as golubka (literally means “dove” or “pigeon,” but colloquially means “sweetheart” or “darling”) or kukolka moya (my little doll). Insults and curses are also frequently in Russian, in part because I’ve always found cursing in other languages to be far more rich in variety than in English. I also tend to use Russian names for common foods and members of the family. It doesn’t seem very Russian if someone calls his or her grandparents Grandma and Grandpap instead of Babushka and Dedushka.

Sometimes I’ll use a line in another language, like “I love you” or “Go to Hell,” to make it sound more personal to the character than it might in English. But I never use entire dialogues or random sentences in a foreign language anymore, just to show off. There should always be a reason why your multi-cultural book has a word, phrase, or sentence in the characters’ native language. And it should never be to show off your research or knowledge. You never want a reader to be pulled out of a story because s/he has to flip to the glossary every 5-10 minutes.