Sunday 24 May 2009

Pavel Chekov, or Elmer Fudd?

I went to see the new Star Trek movie yesterday, and not for the first time it occurred what a strange thing Ensign Pavel Chekov's accent is. Now Chekov is, so he has led his superiors at Starfleet to believe, an ethnic Russian, but for a Russian speaker, he has a remarkable inability to pronounce the letter 'v'. 'Vessel' becomes 'wessel' and 'victor' becomes 'wictor'.

The thing is, 'v' is a very commonly used letter in Russian. It's the third letter of the Russian alphabet (not that alphabets are listed in order of popularity, I know, but it must count for something). It begins many widely used words, such as voda (water), ve (you) and vodka (er, vodka), place names like Volgograd and Vyazma, not to mention Christian names such as Vadim, Vasiliy and Vladimir. Anyone fancy going up to former KGB officer and sixth dan Judo master Prime Minister Putin and calling him 'Wladimir'?

In fact there's no easy 'w' sound in Russian. The best approximation takes two vowels, such as 'Oo-ee-mbldon' for 'Wimbledon'. Alternatively an English 'w' is often replaced by a 'v'. What's the Russian for Wikipedia? Vikipedia. I'm no expert, but I think this 'w' to 'v' (rather than 'v' to 'w') is far more common in most European languages. The one example I can think of 'v' becoming 'w' is from the grandfather of cod-cockney (no, not Dick van Dyke), Charles Dickens. Dickens' Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations pronounces 'vittles' as 'wittles'. But I don't think Magwich was Russian.

Now Walter Koenig, the first actor to play Chekov (and Davy Jones and Rubens Barrichello lookalike) was born and raised in Iowa so, despite his Russian ancestry, might be forgiven for following his director's instruction with regards to the accent. But in the new movie, the role was played by Anton Viktorovich Yelchin, who was born in Leningrad and so really should know better, even though he left for the USA before the age of one. And look at that patronymic. Anton's father is called Viktor. Or do they call him Wiktor back home?

1 comment:

  1. Saw an interview with Walter the other day - pretty sure he said he started the W thing as a joke for a screen test and the director liked it so it stuck. Probably find it'll work its way back into Russian, changing words and giving them all an extra letter to worry about.