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Recently, with a few colleagues moving into our office from Russia, we have a new resident colleague with the first name Герман. Now, being German native speaker, my assumption was that the name originates from Herman/Hermann.

I understand that conventionally this will be pronounced as г/Г would be in Russian, e.g. similar to the g in golf.

But from Russian in school and later life I know it's not the only word suggesting that г/Г used to be pronounced more like h/H in hotel. The word мягкий is another case (although the fricative tends to be more like х/Х in this case).

It seems as if place names and other names or loanwords when they got transliterated from Latin script to Cyrillic, also support this. Examples: Гаага, Гавана, Галле, галстук, Гамбург, гантель, гарем, гармония, Гарц, гаубица, гашиш, Гессен, гетман, гибрид. But it also happens in the middle of words, e.g. бюстгальтер.

On the other hand there are numerous words, including loanwords from German, where г/Г is used g/G (гастроли, герой, гигант). For the case in the middle of a word one could perhaps use шлагбаум, but on the other hand regionally in Germany the pronunciation is a fricative somewhere in between (Russian) х/Х and h/H; so it would depend how/where the loanword got picked up originally.

So my question is: is the pronunciation of г/Г similar to h/H a purely regional and contemporary phenomenon in the Russian language, or was there a time when г/Г was pronounced more like it now is in Ukrainian — /h/ — throughout the Russian language?

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    See also this answer: linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/27349/9781 Feb 16, 2023 at 11:40
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    And this question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/45648/9781 – g/h alternations occur in other Slavic languages as well. Feb 16, 2023 at 11:41
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    I cannot see the original question or any comments on it, but why on earth was this migrated away from Russian Language to Linguistics (where I would argue it doesn’t belong)? I notice their description of on-topicness says, “We welcome questions about the Russian vocabulary and grammar, about the history of expressions, words and grammatical constructions as well as questions about their usage in the modern language” – does that mean phonetics and etymology are not on topic there? That seems quite bizarre. (@shabunc) Feb 16, 2023 at 17:44
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    @shabunc The general view here is that questions that deal in a non-theoretical manner with just a single language (or closely related languages) that has its own SE site are generally better dealt with on the ‘local’ site than here. It’s not that a question like this is off topic here as such, but similar questions about French, German, Spanish/Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and (especially) English would generally be transferred to those sites, simply because they are more likely to have the required expertise. Feb 16, 2023 at 23:35
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    I also would have voted for this question to go there, but the hostility there will certainly make me at least second guess sending anything their way. Over at the Latin site, we would think the opposite, that a question on the divergence of pronunciation in Latin to be perfectly on topic.
    – cmw
    Feb 17, 2023 at 4:21

1 Answer 1

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The pronunciation of г as /h/ is purely regional (Southern dialects) by now; diachronically, it used to be /g/ in Proto-Slavic and that changed into /h/ in some languages (Ukrainian, Belorussian, Czech, Slovak) and remained /g/ in others (Russian, Polish).

The г in мягкий (and лёгкий etc.) is actually /x/ and it is kind of just an orthography quirk (for historical reasons), much like the pronunciation as /v/ in его.

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    Is г in его and -его really an orthography quirk? It was /g/ in Proto-Slavic and remained so in many modern Slavic languages. Seems like it's just an etymological spelling. Similar for г in лёгкий. Feb 17, 2023 at 10:52
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    @Adam Aren’t etymological spellings orthographic quirks? I took the “for historical reasons” qualification to mean ‘because it used to be a /g/, then the pronunciation changed, but the spelling stayed the same’. Feb 17, 2023 at 11:49
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    If the spelling never changed, but the pronunciation did, then it’s a pronunciation quirk. If it’s systematic, then it’s not even a quirk either. Feb 17, 2023 at 18:42
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    @0xC0000022L Remember that the Cyrillic alphabet comes already from the Old Church Slavonic, then Old East Slavic and only after tits split it is used in Russian. Some German borrowings are very old. Older than any Slavic alphabets, already from the times of Charlemagne or even older (and some are very important words, c.f. Czech muset, related to English must and German müssen). The letter was always used for G since its invention and some languages later changed the sound from G to various types of H (the Belarusian is somewhere in between). Feb 26, 2023 at 14:49
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    @0xC0000022L That said, check gekanie at rbth.com/education/328851-dialects-russian-language the usage of G instead of H for foreign words come from these dialectal features. Feb 26, 2023 at 16:39

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