Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nabokov Schmabokov

It's 'naBOKov'

John Wells has given us some entertaining guidance regarding the pronunciation of Vladimir Nabokov (i.e. the pronunciation of his name/s of course). I grew up thinking it was a dactylic dimeter. And by "grew up" I mean from the time I first heard the name in junior high from my sister who loved Sting and decided to learn more about Nabokov after hearing his name in the song "Don't Stand So Close to Me."

3 poems to make the point that each name is not a dactyl. Lines 1-3 of each stanza are dactylic dimeter. One line has to be a single word. Lines 4 and 8 must rhyme. (These were the regulations of the New Statesman competition. The third poem below was the winning entry.

VN the novelist
Wrote of a passion pro-
scribed by the law.

Careful! His names must be
Stressed à la russe, i.e.
("...dímir Nabó...").
-Nigel Greenwood

The next one is in Dutch. The rhythm is the same so you should be able to "utter" it and hear how it works. I'm assuming the "Na-" of "Nabokov" in the final line is orphaned from the second dactyl in the preceding line. Translation follows:

Vlinder- en kindervriend
Vladimir Nabokov...
Lezer, uw uitspraak doet
Pijn aan mijn oor.

Volgens de Russische
Moet het Vladimir
Nabokov zijn hoor!

Lover of butterflies and children,
'Vladimir 'Nabokov...
Reader, your pronunciation
hurts my ear.
According to the Russian
it ought to be Vla'dimir Na'bokov!
-Jan Kal

The winning entry:

Higgledy piggledy
Vladimir Nabokov —
Wait! Hasn't somebody
made a mistake?

Out of such errors, Vla-
dimir Nabokov would
paragraphs make.

Why should we care? Only because Nabokov himself cared. Wells writes: "Apparently Nabokov himself characteristically liked to point out that his first name rhymed with Redeemer."


  1. Now, not to get all persnickety, but it's Nah-BOW-kov (as in Bow tie)in Russian pronunciation. I always pronounced it based on the lyrics of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police, which is way wrong.

  2. That's just as persnickety as you're supposed to be. The spelling has been emended to reflect that truth. Thank you. I got the title of the post wrong too.

    Here's persnickety:
    The 'bow' in 'bow tie' is a diphthong [ow] (or [oʊ]) while the Russian pronunciation is with a monophthonal [o] -- imagine the 'o' you hear in the popularly satirized Minnesota accent; or the 'o' in four.

    With that in mind the Russian pronunciation
    [vɫʌˈdʲimʲɪr nʌˈbokəf] might be represented in traditional orthographic transcription as
    vluh-DYEE-myir nuh-BO-kuf.

    Note the velarized 'l'. That "dark-l" in an onset position is not common in English. We find it in codas (as in mall or full). But in the rare onset position it's one of my favourite sounds. I have always loved the "dark l" of Russian speech.

  3. I can't help but pronounce what you just described in a deeper voice than usual, but I sound Russian when I do it. Yep yep.

  4. Said Agatha Christie / To E. Philips Oppenheim / "Who is this Hemingway? / Who is this Proust? / Who is this Vladimir / Whatchamacallum, this / Neopostrealist / Rabble?" she groused.

    Wrong pronunciations are a requirement here.


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