Gorbachev or Gorbachov?

The surname of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Михаил Горбачёв) was occasionally spelled Gorbachov in English, especially early in his leadership. It is a pity that this spelling didn’t persist. The spelling with <o> would show English speakers more clearly how to pronounce this name.

Cyrillic spelling

Gorbachev’s surname is spelled Горбачeв in the Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet. The letter <e> in the last syllable normally represents the sound [e], but in some words represents the sound [o], normally spelled <о>.

A historical sound change

Using the letter <e> to represent the sound [o] results from a historical sound change. In some words, the late common Slavonic sound [e] become [o] in Russian. This occurred if the [e] was stressed and either:

  • preceded a hard (unpalatalized) consonant; or
  • stood at the end of a word

(Somewhat similar changes also occurred in the other East Slavonic languages, Belarusian and Ukrainian, though in slightly different circumstances.)

In words where that sound change occurred, the modern Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet uses the letter <ё> to represent the sound that has become <о>. However, the letter <ё> is written simply as <e>, except:

  • in books for children or for foreign learners;
  • if just writing <e> might cause ambiguity—for example, between the common words vsjo (всё, ‘all, everything’, neuter singular) and все (vsje, ‘all’, plural).
  • if readers might otherwise not realise how to pronounce the word. For example, the Russian Wikipedia page about Gorbachev spells his surname with <ё> as Горбачёв.

Stress

The letter <ё> always denotes a vowel that is stressed. So, Gorbachev’s surname can be spelled with <ё> (even though it is normally written as <e>). That fact shows that the last vowel in stressed.

Effect on declension and conjugation

In some cases, the declension of nouns or the conjugation of verbs reflects the fact that <e> became <o> only in some environments. As a result, the vowels [e] and [o] alternate with each other in some declensions and conjugations. For example:

  • in the nominative singular of zhena (жeнa, ‘woman’), the first vowel is unstressed and remains [e]. But the genitive plural of this word is zhon (жён). The only vowel is stressed and so changes to [o].
  • in njesla (нecлa, ‘she carried’), the first vowel is unstressed and remains [e]. But in ‘njos’ (нёc, ‘he carried’), the only vowel is stressed and so changes to [o].

Transliteration into other languages

The site wordsense shows how Gorbachev’s name is transliterated into many languages. https://www.wordsense.eu/Gorbachov/

Many of them transliterate the vowel as <o>. The only ones which definitely transliterate it as <e> are French (Gorbatchev)‎; Icelandic (Gorbatsjev‎) and Yoruba (Gọrbatsẹf‎). Indonesian (Gorbachyov‎, Gorbachev‎) and Portuguese (Gorbachev‎, Gorbatchev‎, Gorbachov‎, Gorbatchov‎) permit both forms.

For several other languages, the transliteration is into alphabets I don’t know. Wordsense indicates how to pronounce some of those forms, but not all.

For another discussion on transliterating names from the Cyrillic alphabet, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/07/silly-transliteration

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