Spelling Russian Names in Period English

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

When registering names in the Society, increasing attention has been paid in recent years to orthography and capturing the precise period spelling of names. This is all fine and good for languages that use a Latin alphabet, but what of those that use the Cyrillic? What is a period orthography for such names?

Knowing the period spelling in Cyrillic letters is hardly sufficient for two reasons. First of all, the SCA is not reenacting Medieval Russia, it is reenacting Medieval Western Europe. As such, all Russian personae in the SCA are presumed to be travelling away from home and thus would have seen their names spelled by foreign scribes in Latin alphabets. Secondly, all names in the SCA (mostly for the convenience of registration in our ASCII-based databases) are registered in Latin letters, and therefore the question of correct orthography becomes particularly prickly.

Most SCA-Russian names follow the transliteration system of either the Library of Congress (like I do) or the Revised English System. However, neither system is period. If you were a Russian trader visiting England in the age of Elizabeth, how would your name actually be spelled? The question is far from theoretical. England and Russia had a surprisingly lively diplomatic and economic interaction during the sixteenth century (as well as before). While the visits tended to be of Englishmen in Russia, rather than vice versa, such trips the other direction did occur. So, what sort of system of Russian-English transliteration existed in the sixteenth century?

To discover the answer to this question, we have a remarkable source: Giles Fletcher's account of his embassy to Russia, published in 1591, and entitled, Of the Russe Commonwealth. In seeking an idea of how Elizabethans would have treated Russian names in England, a period account of the Russians (including their names) is a strong source. All the more so, because Flectcher's account is available in a facsimile edition.

Fletcher's Transliteration "System"

As an Elizabethan, Fletcher did not use systematic spelling in English, let alone a consistent system of transliteration of foreign words. But by perusing through his book and his treatment of Russian words, some observations can be made.

General Observations. His system was broadly phonetic but was handicapped by Flectcher's lack of familiarity with the Russian language or linguistics in general. His major effort was to write down the proper nouns he encountered in such a way that the approximate sound could be created for listeners back home. The more modern goal of trying to create a system that could accurately transcribe phonemes was simply not of concern to him.

As a rule, Fletcher was most successful at transcribing familiar consonants. He has little trouble with B, D, G, L, M, N, P, R, T, or Z and tended to transcribe their sounds perfectly. The letter K, however, proved troublesome as he sometimes wrote it down as a K and sometimes he wrote it as a hard C (and some odd times, he even chose a Ch). As a result, Russian words like великий [velikii] were written down by Fletcher as "velica" and surnames like Белский [Belskii] were written as "Belschey."

But, by far, what gave Flectcher the hardest time was the vowels. Russian vowels, when stressed, tend to have a rather full sound that seems exaggerated to English ears. The listener is unsure of whether they have heard one vowel or some sort of diphthong. When a vowel is unstressed, on the other hand, the sound it creates is so altered that English speakers are prone to misidentify it altogether. A classic modern example is the surname of the last leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's name, pronounced by a native speaker, is likely to sound like it should be written out as "Garbichov" (the stress lies on the last syllable, where the "e" in fact has an umlaut on it) in a truly phonetic transliteration. When faced with Russia's vowel sounds, Fletcher became completely random, using whatever English vowel he felt like (which sometimes meant deleting the vowel altogether).

He had even greater trouble with unfamiliar sounds. The letter Й [I or J], for example, was alternately transcribed as I, Y, or simply ignored -- a problem that persists in modern systems (like the Revised English System) as well. The letters Ж [Zh] and Щ [Shch] were almost never transcribed completely in a way that could accurately reflect their sound. Instead, he might write them both as Sh.

Period Russian Phonetics. It is important to remember that the Russian language in the sixteenth century was not pronounced quite as it is today. While it impossible to know the full details of period Russian phonetics, there are some aspects that we are keenly aware of. For example, hard signs ( Ъ ["]) and soft signs ( Ь [']) lack sounds of their own in modern Russian and have been largely eliminated from contemporary orthography. In period, however, they were much more frequent and treated as vowels, and they would have been distinctly audible as reduced open sounds. To an untrained ear, however, they would not have been fully audible, as Fletcher alternates between recording them with the letter E and ignoring them. The most common place for him to notice their sound is at the end of words and names (which is natural enough, as that is where they would be most audible) but he occasionally records them in other locations in a word or name. Thus, we find his "addition" of the letter E on several names:

In each case, the terminal hard sign (not transcribed at all in the modern spelling) has been preserved in Flectcher's spelling.

Creative Orthography. The fact that Fletcher never really came up with a system for the transliteration of Russian sounds (but instead wrote it as he went) is underlined by his inconsistences. He could take a name and spell it consecutively in a variety of different ways. For example, consider the multiple ways that he chose to spell Ivan Vasil'evich's name:

Or his decision to preserve the terminal hard sign in Boris's name in one case and ignore it in the other on the same page: But while these examples are fairly clearly Fletcher's own doing, one should remember that Russians at this time were not any more consistent with spelling than Fletcher was. Thus, one is left wondering if the following person was really named Стефан [Stefan] or Степан [Stepan]: Both names were considered variants of each other and might have been used interchangeably in period. So Fletcher may or may not have been accurately transcribing.

Missing Sounds or Giving Up. At times, Fletcher might miss letters or entire syllables in words and thus fail to record them. Other times, it just seemed like Fletcher could not hear the sounds in the first place. Consonant clusters appear to have given him the most problems but there were plenty of other cases to indicate that accuracy was simply a common problem for him:

When faced with longer names and words, Flectcher was prone to simply giving up and thus large segments of the Russian might be lost in translation. These might be replaced with other letters and sometimes Fletcher would tack on a particularly "Russian"-looking ending: Sometimes, in order to make the original sound clear (and prevent it from being swallowed up by sloppy English mumbled pronunciation), Fletcher would actually add letters, as he did in this case: By adding a T to the name, Fletcher could ensure that the K would be properly pronounced. Alternatively, perhaps Fletcher actually heard the hard K in Bulgakov as a TK.

Lingua Anglica. When Fletcher was able to recognize a Russian word or name as a cognate, he frequently simply chose to use the English (or sometimes Greek) equivalent. There are many natural reasons to do this. First of all, minimizing the large number of unfamiliar proper nouns in his work made it more accessible to his Elizabethan English readers. Secondly, it helped to impart a greater familiarity and smooth out the oddness that seemed to predominate his account. Finally, it solved a large number of questions about proper spelling. As a rule, then, Anglicization was the preferred route:

And, in at least one case, Fletcher chose to translate an entire name (including the patronymic) and transformed Иван Данильевич [Ivan Danil'evich] into "Evan or Iohn, sonne to Daniel" [Fle 12v].

Given Russia's Byzantine roots and the close proximity of its names to Greek, Fletcher recognized another familiar method to transform Russian names into familar forms -- by using Anglicized Greek renderings. Thus, Василий [Vasilii] could be transformed into Basileus [Fle 62]; and Феодор [Feodor] could become Theodore [Fle 42v].


So, how does one write a Russian name in 16th century England? The short answer: with great creativity. Bearing in mind what we have learned above (and following Fletcher's lead) consider his practices. Where possible, Russian names should be transformed into something more familiar. If one recognizes that Nikolai is Nicholas, then use the latter. Rather than introduce the strange Russian guest as "Ivan Ivanovich" to your friends, call him "John, sonne to John." If nothing else, it will make for a less distracting dinner conversation.

Where that fails, be flexible, and transcribe only as much of the name as is necessarily to indicate its uniqueness. Remove letters and sounds that distract and add others which help to accentuate the sound and make it clearer to the listener. Preserving the hard and soft signs is a nice touch, but even Fletcher did not do so consistently.


  • Giles Fletcher, Of the Russe Commonwealth (Facsimile Edition). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.

  • Appendix A: Fletcher's "System"

    While Fletcher did not have a real system, here is an attempt to organize his more common transliteration scheme. For comparison purposes, I have included the modern Library of Congress system. The "<>" symbol indicates that the letter was often not transcribed and simply eliminated instead.

    Cyrillic Letter

    Library of Congress

    Fletcher's Orthography

    A, O
    V, W, <>
    E, I
    I, E, Y
    I, Y, <>
    K, C, Ch
    O, Ou, A
    S, Z
    Ou, E, O
    F, Ph, Th
    F, Ch, Tch
    Cz, Tz
    Sh, Sch
    E, <>
    E, <>
    Yu, U
    Ya, Ia, E

    Appendix B: Names Found In Of the Russe Commonwealth

    The names listed below are all found in Fletcher's account and have been cross-referenced and structured in the same manner as names in my Dictionary of Period Russian Names (3rd Edition) for ease of comparison ("[Fle 51v]" would indicate that the name is found on the verso of page 51). All names, of course, are dated to 1591, so the dates have been removed from the entries.
  • Afanasii (m) --
  • Aleksandr (m) --
  • Andrei (m) --
  • Anikei (m) --
  • Anna (f) --
  • Avraam (m) --
  • Bel (m) --
  • Bezobraz (m) --
  • Bogdan (m) --
  • Boris (m) --
  • Bulgak (m) --
  • Bush (m) --
  • Buturlia (m) --
  • Cheremisin (m) --
  • Cherkas (m) --
  • Daniil (m) --
  • Dementii (m) --
  • Dmitrii (m) --
  • Dorofei (m) --
  • Druzhina (m) --
  • Elevferii (m) --
  • Elezar' (m) --
  • Feodor (m) --
  • Gavriil (m) --
  • Glin (m) --
  • Godun (m) --
  • Golitsa (m) --
  • Golova (m) --
  • Grigorii (m) --
  • Iakov (m) --
  • Iaroslav (m) --
  • Ignatii (m) --
  • Ioann (m) --
  • Istoma (m) --
  • Iurii (m) --
  • Khvorostina (m) --
  • Kleshna (m) --
  • Kuraka (m) --
  • Mikhail (m) --
  • Mstislav (m) --
  • Nikita (m) --
  • Nikolai (m) --
  • Odoi (m) --
  • Pantelei (m) --
  • Petr (m) --
  • Pivo (m) --
  • Postel'nichii (byn) --
  • Roman (m) --
  • Sabur (m) --
  • Sapun (m) --
  • Shchelkalov (byn) --
  • Sheremet (m) --
  • Shestun (m) --
  • Shui (m) --
  • Sidor (m) --
  • Simon (m) --
  • Skopa (m) --
  • Stepan (m) --
  • Tatishche (m) --
  • Tat' (m) --
  • Timofei (m) --
  • Troekur (m) --
  • Trubets (m) --
  • Vasilii (m) --
  • Vladimir (m) --
  • Vorota (m) --
  • Vyluzga (m) --

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