Thursday, 23 December 2010


Today’s newspapers carry news, based on a report in the science journal Nature, of DNA findings relating to an archaic group of humans, some of whose fossilized remains have been found in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. (Here’s the Guardian’s version. There’s also an informative article on the “Denisova hominin” in Wikipedia.)

The new human ancestors were named Denisovans after the Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains where their remains were found.

The matter was duly reported on BBC R4 in this morning’s Today programme.

But how do we pronounce Denisova and its derivative Denisovan? In particular, where does the stress go? The BBC reporter stressed the second syllable, -ˈnɪs-.

The name of the cave is of course Russian, and is written in Cyrillic as Денисова. It is the feminine of Денисов Denisov, from the name Денис Denis. But the stressing of Russian patronymics ending in -ов (-ov) is notoriously unpredictable.

None of the pronunciation dictionaries I have to hand record the name. But the online resource Forvo does!

(Forvo is a website with sound files demonstrating the pronunciation of a claimed 800-thousand-odd words in 267 languages. Anyone can upload a sound file showing how they pronounce a given name or word.)

A speaker described only as “Female from Russia” pronounces Денисов clearly as dʲɪˈnʲisəf. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Assuming that this is the regular Russian pronunciation, it follows that Денисова Denisova is dʲɪˈnʲisəvə and that we should anglicize it as dəˈnɪsəvə (or perhaps with dɪ- or de-, or indeed with -ˈniːs-). The hominins, then, are dəˈnɪsəvənz.

This was indeed the pronunciation used by the BBC presenter. Well done the BBC Pronunciation Unit.
_ _ _

Happy Christmas to everyone. Next posting: 27 December.


  1. An invaluabale addition to your bookshelves (if you do not already own it) is Morton Benson's Dictionary of Russian Personal Names (CUP).

  2. My wife Elena speaks with an old-fashioned Leningrad accent much admired by cultivated Muscovites. (Well, by some of them). I asked her to read the start of an Russian Tourism feature on the Denisova Cave. She didn't know until afterwards that the purpose was to record her pronunciation of Денисова.

  3. ...and how did she pronounce it?

  4. ...oh, I see, we can hear her ourselves on your website. She says dʲɪˈnʲisəvə. Thanks!

  5. Happy Christmas to you too :-)

  6. No sound plays for me when I visit the page (in Google Chrome), but delving into the source code, the sound file is at

  7. Steve's link gives only the sound. For the full page the code is

    Click the triangular Play symbol on the strip underneath the picture.

  8. Thank you, and best wishes to you and yours

  9. I just see a black band at the bottom of the picture at normal zoom. If I press Ctrl-+ a couple of times, the controls suddenly appear and I can see the play button.

    Probably a bug in Google Chrome.

  10. Their logo looks suspiciously Cherokee to me.

  11. Forvo looks like fun. When I find a new pronunciation dictionary I always look up Mengele just because it's funny how English people mispronounce the name.

    Forvo has mɛŋɛl. LPD has mɛŋ l ə

    Many English people say mɛŋgiːl

  12. It always bugs me when people pronounce Russian feminine names with the stress on "-skaya" or "-ova".

  13. It always bugs me when people pronounce Russian feminine names with the stress on "-skaya" or "-ova".

    Of course, when it is correct to stress the "-ova", as in the rather common name Kuznetsova (as in the tennis player), people often incorrectly stress the preceding syllable...

  14. And in at least one case, not stressing the final syllable can give the wrong impression: Tolstáya is the feminine of Tolstoy, while tólstaya means fat.

  15. 40,000 year old FOSSIL with genetic material??? How come no dinosaur fossils have dna material..? Fossils that old are rocks.. almost as dense as these reports.

  16. It's not the feminine forms that are the problem — not usually, at least. The problem is knowing where to place the stress on the masculine names in -ов.

    Elena tells me that the Russian equivalent of Smith, Jones and Robinson is Ivanov, Petrov, Sideroviva⁠ˈnof, pʲɪ⁠ˈtrof, ˈsidərəf— with stress on different syllables. The trio does exemplify a rule of thumb that two-syllable names tend to have stress on final ов. There are obvious exceptions like Pavlov/Pavlovaˈpavlof ⁠/⁠ ˈpavləvə — but not too many.

    Perhaps this tendency extends to final stress in names without ov. This might possibly explain the shift of stress to the final syllable of Tolstoy — despite a derivation from the word meaning fat.

    The converse is about as good as a rule of thumb. With exceptions such as Kuznetsov, names with more than two syllables tend not to have the stress on ов.

    Unlike ов, the ending ский feminine скаяsky/skaya is never stressed. However the ending ской/скаяskoy/skaya — is always stressed. [At least, Elena can think of no exceptions.]

    Edinburgh University recently opened a Russian-funded centre named after a Princess Dashkova. An important figure in her day, the Royal lady was not spoken of in Soviet times, and not even the native speakers knew how her name was pronounced. Relying on the rule of thumb above, they made Dashkova rhyme with flash rover — until somebody discovered ˈdaʃkəvə in an encyclopaedia. The princess's greatest achievement, as Elena sees it, was to put two dots on the letter е to distinguish /e/ — е from /jo/ — ё

  17. As you say, those are very basic rules of thumb. Even Ivanov is Ivánov rather than Ivanóv often enough, eg with the symbolist poet.

    However the ending ской/скаяskoy/skaya — is always stressed. [At least, Elena can think of no exceptions.]

    Nor will she find any, as -skój is the stressed equivalent of unstressed -skyj.

    I'd have thought that in spite of the basic arbitrariness, the native speaker's sprachgefühl would clearly prompt Dáshkova.

  18. Lena did mention a chap who pretentiously —in her judgement — shifted the stress to Ivánov. However, he was a painter. She recognises your Ivánov, though. He was Vyacheslav Ivanovich. The painter she had in mind was Alexander Andreievich. Googling revealed a near contemporary, Sergei Vasilievich Ivanóv, more down to earth in his subject matter and his name stress.

  19. It occurs to me that if as Lena says Ivanov, Petrov, Siderov is the Russian equivalent of Smith, Jones and Robinson, then a Russian calling himself Ivánov is not unlike an Englishman calling himself Robínson.