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Private Military Company Wagner has made headlines ever since the escalation of the armed conflict in Ukraine. I have watched and listened to multiple news outlets report on its activities. Some read the name of the organization with a "v" sound while others a "w" sound. Confused which was the right pronunciation, I checked the Russian spelling which is "Вагнер". So "v" sound is appropriate. Then why is Wagner written as such and not "Vagner" in English?

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    It's probably because Wagner is a name of German origin, and is written with a W in German, which carried over into the English spelling (like many words and names of German origin). Aug 1, 2023 at 18:45
  • And the irony is that many German speakers, when they see an English word that begins with V, pronounce the V as an English speaker usually pronounces a W, as in "water": wictory.
    – TimR
    Aug 1, 2023 at 18:57
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    @Tim - there is a story that in World War 2, people in England might be asked to prove they were not a German spy by saying 'Wolverhampton Wanderers'. Aug 1, 2023 at 20:30
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    @Tim - and the singers in the Danish/Norwegian 1990s band Aqua sang 'Roses are red, wiolets are blue' and 'I am the wictim of the hard love messenger'. Aug 4, 2023 at 9:01
  • It can be written as "Vagner" (example), but that's far less popular than the "Wagner" spelling.
    – dan04
    Sep 22, 2023 at 19:23

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The W and its pronunciation in Russian are faithful to its origins according to Wikipedia:

Utkin reportedly called himself Wagner after German composer Richard Wagner, because his work was greatly admired by Adolf Hitler and was appropriated by the Nazis.

The name "Wagner" is known in English with both /w/ and /v/ sounds, depending on whose name it is. For example, there's Honus Wagner, an American, with a /w/ sound. Another /v/ example is Kurt Wagner, a (fictional) German. I have never seen the spelling "Vagner".

However, not all words with a clear connection to Germany use a /v/ sound for W. A good example is Volkswagen, which I (as an American) have never heard pronounced like it would be in German. You can hear what I hear in their commercials.

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  • Round here (affluent south east of England), everyone says "Folksvagen", where are you from? This might be regional. Aug 1, 2023 at 22:39
  • @PrimeMover - I have heard people pronouncing it 'vorks waggen', but fewer these days. I think 40+ years of TV advertising is starting to get through ;) People even manage the short 'o' & long 'a' much of the time. Aug 2, 2023 at 7:17
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Wagner is a German name and pronounced in that language with a /v sound.

Native English speakers do not always know how to pronounce foreign names of people and places, and so pronunciation will vary. The German car manufacturer Volkswagen is pronounced differently by many English speakers.

We wouldn't normally change the spelling of a person's name to one that we can pronounce, although some people do choose to Anglicise their names if they move to an English speaking country.

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As a general rule, if a name originates from a language that uses a Latin-based alphabet, its original spelling is preserved in English, regardless of how much phonetic sense it makes.

“Wagner” is a well-known German name (most associated with Richard Wagner), so we spell it the German way, even when it's the name of a Russian organization.

Similarly, the nationality of a person from Prague is “Czech” (not “Chek”), and the former President of France is François Hollande (not Franswa Olland).

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