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Why can't it be just 'Mihail'? I guess the 'k' is inserted to ensure correct pronunciation, but I don't see how 'Mikhail' and 'Mihail' are pronounced differently.

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    Is it pronounced "Mihail" in Russian? I would not say "Mihail" if I saw "Mikhail", I would utter a more guttural version of K that isn't quite like ours. The English X is not pronounced the same as the Russian X and so the English version KH tries to approximate it. – Weather Vane Dec 5 '19 at 11:15
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    kh and h aren't the same sounds in English. I don't know how it's pronounced in Russian, but this is the limitation of standard transliteration tables. – pboss3010 Dec 5 '19 at 13:08
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    @SergeyZolotarev the English alphabet doesn't have a consonant equivalent to the Russian X. 'Kh' approximates it, but is not pronounced 'H' because it is supposed to approximate 'X'. – Weather Vane Dec 5 '19 at 16:05
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    @Weather Vane: It's pronounced close enough to MihaiI that many Russians prefer to transliterate their names with 'h' rather than 'kh'. It's not a 'k', and if you use the "ch" sound of German or Hebrew, you end up making it too gutteral. – Peter Shor Dec 5 '19 at 19:29
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    The sounds are, indeed, pronounced different. But so are the first consonant of the word (it's palatalized because of the following 'i'/'и') and the 'a' (Russian 'a's are a bit more closed; here's the Russian 'a': en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near-open_central_vowel). But there are no attempts to convey that difference by inserting additional vowels. I don't get why make this clumsy attempt with 'h' ("clumsy" because it still wouldn't sound like the Russian 'h') – Sergey Zolotarev Dec 5 '19 at 23:31
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Since the differences in pronunciation have been thoroughly discussed, I'd like to point one the consistency of transliteration.

The spelling Mikhail simply follows the common convention "х=kh". From this perspective, asking why it is not spelt Mihail boils down to why the Cyrillic х is not rendered as h, and I think there's a fairly straightforward answer here.

The English language (unlike Russian) employs numerous digraphs with the letter h, which has the effect of completely changing the sound of the previous letter. Should one systematically replace every х with h, a lot of words will be impossible to read back correctly, as you would not know whether h came from х or letters like ш (sh) or ч (ch). You could of course devise a workaround to fix that, but the digraph kh seems to be easier than convincing English speakers to pronounce sh as [sh].

For example, the Russian word восход [vɐsˈxot] "sunrise" would be transliterated as voshod, which implies the pronunciation along the lines of [vɒʃəd]: individual s and h merged to a completely different sound! Similarly, ветхий [ˈvʲetxɪj] is not pronounced vethiy: the t and h are not only distinct, they are in different syllables.

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The "kh" is not meant to be understood as a sequence of "k" followed by "h". The idea is that it is a digraph where both letters together represent the single sound of Russian х. It is used by analogy with the English digraphs "th" and "ph", which also are used to represent single fricative sounds. (Those digraphs are based in part on old traditions about how Greek is transcribed.)

English "h" by itself is not pronounced exactly the same as Russian х. The English sound is categorized as a glottal fricative (written [h] in the International Phonetic Alphabet) while the Russian sound is categorized as a velar fricative (written [x] in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Most English speakers aren't accustomed to pronouncing the velar fricative. The glottal fricative /h/ is probably the English consonant that sounds the closest to the velar fricative [x], but some speakers might use the velar stop /k/ as a replacement instead, either because of influence from the spelling or because the velar fricative sounds like [k] to them.

Going the other direction, I've heard that it is usual for Russian speakers to approximate English [h] with Russian х, but it is an approximation, not an exactly identical sound.

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    But I believe the Russian /x/ is a lot closer to /h/ than the Hebrew or German /x/. Forvo.com. – Peter Shor Dec 5 '19 at 19:38
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    @PeterShor: I think you may be talking about uvular [χ], which is often not distinguished in transcription from velar [x] in languages where these sounds do not contrast. It looks like some varieties of Hebrew and Dutch use uvular [χ] in all positions; in German, I've seen it described as an allophone that appears most often after the vowel "a". – sumelic Dec 5 '19 at 19:43
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    I believe that the reason is that there is no phonemic contrast between /h/ and /x/ in Russian, since /h/ isn't a phoneme, so both of these are used as instantiations of /x/ (while Hebrew has both an /h/ and a /x/ sound, so their /x/'s can't be at all /h/-like). – Peter Shor Dec 5 '19 at 19:53
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    @sumelic > I've heard that it is usual for Russian speakers to approximate English [h] with Russian х. Yes, it actually is, and more - Russian Х is used to transliterate English (and also German etc.) /h/, e.g. Helen -> Хелен. (By the way, Southern Slavic languages using Cyrillic alphabet e.g. Bulgarian, Macedonian etc. consistently use H to transliterate Cyrillic Х, and also so do some romanisation systems for Russian.) – trolley813 Dec 6 '19 at 6:02
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    @eagle275 I don't think anyone actually feels that way about the pronunciation anymore. Most Russians would agree that putting a Х instead of Г in Герман would be more accurate... but it's less traditional, and often (as here) leads to putting profanity in someone's name, which is another reason to avoid it. – Misha Lavrov Dec 6 '19 at 16:55
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The primary reason is "that's the way it's done". You can't say that "Mikhail" is pronounced correctly while "Mihail" wouldn't be, because all English speakers get both of them horribly wrong. But if you transcribe Михаил as "Mikhail" you are at least consistent with other transliterations.

In theory the Russian letter "х" is pronounced slightly differently from the English letter "h", but neither Russian nor English speakers will ever get confused if you conflate the two, so there's no point in making the distinction. (I think the Russian pronunciation has also evolved over time since the transliteration rules were developed.)

Also in theory, the English "kh" is supposed to sound more like the Russian letter "х", and not as "k" followed by "h", but they forgot to tell the English speakers that.

Based on my experience, if one's name is Михаил, it's safest to just tell English speakers that your name is Misha.

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    From a Misha. Very pertinent. – Eddie Kal Dec 5 '19 at 20:49
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    "they forgot to tell the English speakers that" ROFL! :) – Martha Dec 6 '19 at 15:29
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    @Martha Initially, I was being a bit flippant there, but after reading A. Rex's answer, I'm starting to think that's exactly what happened. Blame the French! – Misha Lavrov Dec 6 '19 at 15:48
  • My wife - not a native Russian speaker, but she studied the language for a while - calls me Misha sometimes! (I am not Russian, as you may have guessed from my name.) – Michael Lugo Dec 6 '19 at 18:12
  • "They forgot to tell the English speakers that" indeed! This English speaker assumed, as with the name "Michael", that the middle consonant sound is basically just k. – Deolater Dec 6 '19 at 19:28
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Because the Russian x has a different sound (IPA /x/) from /h/

While many English speakers don't know how to pronounce /x/, many do.

But to some degree, transliteration between languages is arbitrary and follows fashion. We write Tschaikovsky with a T because that's how French and German represent the sound: "Chaykovsky" or "Chaikovsky" would better represent it in English orthography.

On the other hand, to turn your example round, it used to be customary to render non-Russian words with /h/ into Russian using the letter 'г', pronounced /g/. So for example, not only does Herbert Hoover appear in Russian as Ге́рберт Гу́вер (/gerbert guver/), but the words "hymn" and "horizon" were borrowed into Russian as гимн /gimn/ and горизонт /gorizont/.

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    A few decades ago it became official policy to use the form Chaikovski'i in British and American library catalogues (I think I remember correctly), but after a time the 'T' was reinstated. However, we do write Chekhov rather then Tchekhov, the spelling used in older books. – Kate Bunting Dec 5 '19 at 13:50
  • Does the Russian x also transliterate as ks? If so does it correspond to more than one consonants/pronunciations (kh, ks)? I am thinking Xenia/Ksenia. – Eddie Kal Dec 5 '19 at 15:21
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    @Eddie: The Russian X transliterates as 'h' or 'kh', the Russian C transliterates as 's', the Russian K transliterates as 'k', and you spell Xenia with KC. – Peter Shor Dec 5 '19 at 19:36
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    I have some Russian-speaking friends who have been in the US for quite a long time and have very good English — but still they tell me about their trip to the Bagamas or what Gitler did in the war. Very hard to pry that kind of thing loose, when it comes to proper names. – hobbs Dec 6 '19 at 2:01
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    @hobbs That comes from some historical reasons which caused transliteration of western h to be г which works in Ukrainian, Belarussian and perhaps some southern Russian dialects, but does not work well in modern standard Russian. Modern transcriptions into Russian use х instead of the г. – Vladimir F Dec 6 '19 at 8:48
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Historically, when Russian names have been transliterated into the Latin alphabet, the most important target language was French rather than English. For example, the Wikipedia page for Romanization of Russian says that in "Soviet international passports, transliteration was based on French rules (but without diacritics), so all of the names were transliterated in a French-style system".

The French-style system had the characteristic you describe ("х" becomes "kh" instead of "h") because the letter "h" is almost always silent in French.

Another answer mentions Tchaikovsky, where a similar reason explains the "tch" instead of "ch". The digraph "ch" is usually pronounced as /ʃ/ (English "sh", Russian "ш") in French, so the combination "tch" is used instead.

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Cyrillic transliteration is usually formulaic, where every Cyrillic letter corresponds exactly to some letter or combination of Roman letters. Most of these are quite sensible and would only rarely cause avoidable mistakes. There are, however, some problematic combinations, one of which you've run into.

  • KH = x. Kharkov would really be Harkov or Harkiv. Mikhail would really be Mihail. This is probably the worst offender, since most Americans can probably get closer with the 'h' than the 'kh'.
  • SHT = щ. Borsht would really be borsh. There's no 't' sound in the word at all.
  • ZH = ж. This one's tricker, but ж has significant impact on the vowel which comes after, so in English you would sometimes want to change a following vowel. This can also get confused with the 'zh' used in Chinese and other East Asian transliteration.
  • o's and a's are problematic, since the pronunciation in Russian depends on the position of the stress in the word, but English speakers usually say 'o' is 'o' when confronted by an unknown foreign word. The Russian word for milk is guaranteed to be mispronounced if you write it correctly as 'moloko'. My best guess for American pronunciation would be 'mulahko', although I think Americans would be likely to stress the 2nd syllable with that spelling... Americans aren't big fans of putting stress on a late 'o'.

Despite these problems, such a transliteration pattern is beneficial for Russian speakers and for consistency, since it means that a Russian word in English can almost always be converted back-and-forth to Russian without confusion. Additionally, a set formula removes the tedious debate that might otherwise arise about whether 'muhlahkoh' is better than 'mulahkoh'...

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    As a native Russian speaker, I don't see much difference between pronounciation of stressless 'o' in "moloko" and in, for example, English "combination" (the first one). So it does not look something unique to me. – max630 Dec 5 '19 at 21:37
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    @max630 In the native English lexicon, 'o' is most frequently some sound other than 'oh'. But when discussing foreign, invented, or proper words with many o's, especially if it's not part of a recognizable combo, the trend shifts. Bolo, bonobo, loco, Oreo, Volvo, Togo, Soho, Kosovo, Domo, Olo, yolo, Sapporo, Yoko Ono, Miyamoto, Lagos, Cairo, Mexico, Bogota, Nairobi, Coco de whatever, etc. It's not all of them, of course. Toronto is a good counter-example, although still different between Russian and English due to stress being on the 2nd syllable. – Jeutnarg Dec 5 '19 at 22:20
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    But Americans making or ordering that particular soup would pronounce the final t, and if you believe Wikipedia, actually comes to American English via Yiddish, which also has a final t sound: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#Etymology And while I don't know of any American males named Mikhail, Michela (with c pronounced as k) is a not all that uncommon woman's name. – jamesqf Dec 6 '19 at 3:07
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    @max630 The first o in "combination" is pronounced with a full [ɒ] sound as in LOT/CLOTH. Perhaps the last o in bishop or pilot or hammock is a better example? They are stressless. – Rosie F Dec 6 '19 at 9:25
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Everyone else here recalled the Russian "h" being different, but I want to add an important detail:
A lot of English speakers don't pronounce lone "h" at all in a lot of places

If you give such person a word "Harkov" with no context, it's likely he would pronounce it as "arkov"
and it's a big deal

So to have at least some sound in those places, "kh" was adopted, as it is at least somewhat guessable due to "k"-"h" parity in the Russian language

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English language does not have equivalent sound of Russian Х and simple transliteration does not apply to the sounds. In case of my 'family name' (middle name) was used French dictionary to be put on legal papers (international passport).

It is sufficient to put mihail and mikhail into Google translator to hear the difference and realize that none of the pronunciation sounds even close to Russian version pronunciation.

Google translate

It is unavoidable difference of the languages -- the person should live long enough in the country to adopt his brain and tongue with proper pronunciation.

Some Russian words most English speaking people can not pronounce even if they try really very hard.

Russian letters ь ё ъ й ы do not have any similar alternative in English. Just sufficient to ask any English speaking person to pronounce 'хорошо, Андрей, мышь, скользко, Иисус, церковь, жимолость, интервью, и т.д)'.

Very good example is Tim Kerbi who lives in Russia long enough -- video

There is a fantastic example Christopher Heni who works in Kazakhstan -- video

American ambassador in Russia answers on students question -- video

We have a friends, an old couple from Nederlands, man of the family told us that during WWII they used tongue twister to weed out German spies. It doesn't matter how long and hard was their training -- they could not pronounce tongue twister properly.

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    People living near Loch Lommond and drinking Glenfiddich or GlenDronach could disagree about the lack of the sound. – Vladimir F Dec 6 '19 at 8:51
  • coincidentally the scottish "Loch" come were close to the sound russians use for their х – eagle275 Dec 6 '19 at 12:46
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    @VladimirF yes, but it could well be argued that those aren't English terms at all but Gaelic loanwords. – leftaroundabout Dec 6 '19 at 14:56
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It's not the same sound, English h is usually a glottal fricative, Russian х is usually a velar fricative.

We're used to ⟨kh⟩ being /kʰ/, but remember that ⟨th⟩ is not /tʰ/ but rather /θ/, the dental fricative. There is no "unpronounceable t" in ⟨th⟩. English has precedent for using ⟨-h⟩ to mark fricatives, so the notation makes sense in context.

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