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I'm not a native english speaker and I'm sometimes baffled by the appearance of "kh" in Russian names and other words (for instance the russian lunar rover "Lunokhod"). In this case, the sensible transliteration would be "h", as it is in the original Cyrillic and in most transliteration for other languages (this is why this English transliteration looks very alien and hard to read compared to slavic languages with latin script, even though the pronunciation is almost the same).

In this case, the pronunciation is very close to the hard "h", as in "hospital", "Hungary", and to "ch" in "loch".

I assume "h" was not used because people may choose to interpret it as a silent letter. Am I correct about this?

"ch" is also problematic, because in some other words ("technology") it's pronounced as "k" (again in contrast to most other languages that have a version of this widespread Greek-based word that is pronounced with "h", as is the greek letter χ).

"kh" seems like the least suitable choice, as it explicitly suggests "k", as in "Khan (Wrath of Khan)". Trying to pronounce it phonetically results in Klingon-sounding sputtering noise.

So, what is the reasoning for this weird combination of consonants and what are the arguments against other reasonable choices that are already used in other English words that have the same phoneme?

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    The h in hospital/Hungary (IPA [h]) is not the same as ch in loch (which is either IPA [ʜ] or [χ]). I believe kh, even in Khan but particularly in Луноход, is [ɣ].
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 20, 2014 at 10:13
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    The [h]/[ʜ][χ] difference is surely universal. [ɣ] doesn't appear natively in English and kh is an approximate transliteration to distinguish from k (although kh is often treated as [k] anyway, because it's easy and understandable). However, I'll wait for someone better-versed in terms like "velar" and "pharyngeal" to come along -- which is why these are just comments.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 20, 2014 at 10:49
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    What language is your native one? There is a difference between [x] and [h], but it might be difficult for you to hear if your native language only has one or the other. Some languages have both, however, such as Hebrew, so they are certainly not the same sound.
    – herisson
    Dec 23, 2014 at 18:02
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    I don't know why you say 'h' is used in the original Cyrillic. In the Cyrillic alphabet that Russians use, the symbol for 'kh/h' is Х, not Н. The Cyrillic letter Н sounds like 'n'. Dec 23, 2014 at 18:51
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    The difference between [k] and [ɣ] may be negligible in English because no English word has [ɣ]: we have to learn that sound for foreign words, and not everyone does or is even aware of it. But how Russian is changing is generally not relevant to English. Please consider using chat. Comments are not for extended discussion.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 3, 2016 at 11:17

5 Answers 5

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"Kh" means Х & is used to indicate /x/, a rougher sound than /h/, although Russian is undergoing a sound shift & /x/ is lowering from [x] to [x̞], which is less rough & sounds more like [h].

What I find silly is how Й is commonly transliterated as "Y". Y is already used for Ы. It should be "J", which is what is used for Polish. Й occupies the same alphabet position as J. "Ygyatta" is not "Ыгятта".

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  • Not to mention the transliteration of Ь as "Y". Grrr! Feb 20, 2017 at 23:55
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My intuitive understanding for transliteration of /x/ as kh has been simply that /k/ like /x/ is velar, while /h/ is glottal. So prepending 'k' to an 'h' suggests that the sound should be fricative like 'h', but with a velar articulation.

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The English convention of using the digraph kh to represent the non-English sound /x/ seems to have originated with the Central Asian title khan, attested in English since around 1400 in spellings like caan, chaan, caun etc., then in Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1788) as khan. The latter spelling eventually prevailed (perhaps because of Gibbon’s prestige) and "kh" was subsequently adopted to represent the same sound in Russian, and other languages.

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  • There's also sheikh, which was spelled (sporadically) with 'kh' starting around the same time as khan. Dec 24, 2014 at 22:46
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It becomes a matter of whether one wants the transliteration to be loyal to the Cyrillic, or easily interpreted by English speakers.

a) Russian has many of the same Cyrillic characters as Serbian. Since Serbian has a Cyrillic and Latin alphabet, this could be used as a base. For additional letters, I'd make comparisons with other languages, or simply use what scientific transliterators have decided on.

b) Academics have tried to transliterate Cyrillic languages in such a way that they are easily intelligible to English speakers, using only the basic 26 Latin characters. Their attempts at doing so have become the standard employed by Western governments. One shortfall is the fact that they use y to represent three distinct Russian characters (Й, Ы, and Ь), the last of which is not even a letter but a sign that "indicates palatalization of the preceding consonant."

  • Their transliteration of Ж as zh also leaves something to be desired. The pronunciation of zh is not unambiguous to an English speaker. I'd go as far as making it look French, e.g. ge, to avoid that.
  • Lastly, the transliteration of Х as kh, mentioned in your question, is plain tacky. It should be h, the closest English equivalent. In a strict transliteration, one could make the argument for ch—how the voiceless velar fricative is spelt in the majority of Latin-based languages that use it—or j/x, as in Spanish.

I've used Russian as an example here, but the same principles could be employed for other Cyrillic languages, sure.

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  • We wouldn't pronounce 'ge' right, either. Doctor Geivago would be pronounced Jayvahgo. And how would you tell whether to pronounce Georgy with a /g/ or a /ʒ/? 'zh' is a much better transliteration. Feb 21, 2017 at 2:11
  • Fair enough. It's not perfect, but I guess that would be expecting too much. I personally prefer the literal system, which spells Russian Cyrillic in Latin as the letters would appear in other Slavic languages. @PeterShor Feb 21, 2017 at 6:41
  • Problematically, Georgy is pronounced Yorgi. @PeterShor Apr 17, 2017 at 13:24
  • It is? Listen to that link. I definitely hear a /g/. Maybe some Russians named Georgy say Yorgi in English, because native English speakers have trouble with the starting consonant combination in Gyorgi. Apr 17, 2017 at 13:30
  • Either way, Georgy doesn't lay bare in English the Russian pronunciation. @PeterShor Apr 17, 2017 at 13:54
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The kh indicates a paletized H. The H in hospital is pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the lower front teeth. KH is pronounced with the it almost touching the hard palate (the ridge of bone inside the row of upper front teeth). This produces a vibration similiar to that of a Scotish rolled R.

KH is an attempt to convey a letter sound which most English speakers cannot pronounce anyway. It is a product of pedantic transliteration such as is done on passports and in library card catelogues. Such transliteration often produces unusual letter combinations which confuse Americans or cause them to view the word as completely unpronouncable. Sure H is not quite the same as KH, but if you write H, readers will pronounce it close to correctly. If you write KH they may not be able to pronounce the word at all.

Incidently, there have been and still are numerous standards for transliterating Russian Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. One widely used in US is from the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/romanization/russian.pdf This standard gives KH as the transliteration of Х. This standard is widely used in the US even outside of libraries.

The ICAO standard for machine readable travel documents gives KH as the transliteration for Х in Russian names: http://www.icao.int/publications/Documents/9303_p1_v1_cons_en.pdf

But, the KH transliteration is not universal. For example, the standard for transliterating telegrams leaving Russia give H as the transliteration:

http://www.moscow.cnt.ru/documents/Instrukcia%20mezhdunarodnye%20telegrammy.pdf

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    But many Russians prefer to transliterate the 'Х' their names into English with an 'h' rather than a 'kh'. The sounds apparently don't sound so different to Russians. And Burgess used "horrorshow" for хорошо in Clockwork Orange. Dec 23, 2014 at 18:55
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    @PeterShor And I agree with them. That is why in the second paragraph of my answer I descibe KH as "pedantic". It is better to use a spelling that readers will actually understand. I'll go back and edit to make this clearer.
    – David42
    Dec 23, 2014 at 19:29
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    "The H in hospital is pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the lower front teeth." That is nonsense.
    – fdb
    Dec 23, 2014 at 21:15
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    Your description of kh doesn't sound like it's the Russian consonant /x/ but the German consonant /ç/ (an allophone of /x/ in German). The consonants /h/ and /x/ are much closer than the consonants /h/ and /ç/. Dec 24, 2014 at 3:21
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    @Neil That's just because that's the natural, neutral resting position of the tongue. Try saying it with your tongue right in the middle of your mouth, not touching anything at all, and note how the pronunciation of the h doesn't change at all—the only thing that matters for [h] is that there be a clear passage with no significant narrowing throughout the vocal tract, regardless of how the tongue is placed. Dec 24, 2014 at 22:33

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