Sunday, September 25, 2011

From Teddy Roosevelt to Rachmaninoff – when revisionist spelling runs amuck

Theodore Roosevelt is known for many things: President, hunter, conservationist, Bull-Moose candidate, trust-buster, foreign policy expansionist, prolific author. One thing nearly forgotten by history was his effort to simplify spelling in American-English. I believe the motivation behind this was TR’s desire to separate the American language from its British roots – all the more because this came at a time when the American Navy was eclipsing England’s.

Be that as it may, in 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was founded in New York City. Board members included Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), library organizer Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal System fame), U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, publisher Henry Holt, and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage. Among the board’s recommendations: make American-English more phonetic by deleting silent letters, such as "e" (as in "axe"), "h" (as in "ghost"), "w" (as in "answer"), and "b" (as in "debt"); spell “enough” as “enuf”, remove the “u” from honour, colour, and favour; change centre to center, rhyme to rime, socks to sox, and so on.
A few of these changes have come to pass, but many have gone the way of the 1970s proposed conversion to the metric system – which made more sense in retrospect. As far as spelling is concerned, I am old fashioned and still use grey, not gray, when describing my car’s color.

History remembers the Soviet Union for many things: Stalin’s bloody purges, the high price paid for victory in the Great Patriotic War, their early lead in the Space Race, Glasnost & Perestroika, and the way it all ended – not with a bang but with a whimper. Early Soviets also decided to reform spelling. But unlike TR’s attempt, the Soviet restructuring of the Russian language took firm hold – not always with the positive results.

Nowhere in music is this more evident than in the spelling of a certain composer’s name as Rachmaninow, or more commonly Rachmaninov, instead of Rachmaninoff.

For the record, the Cyrillic spelling of the composer’s name when he was born is Сергей Васильевич Рахманиновъ. That “ъ” at the end is known as a tvyordiy znak – but its use was altered early in the Soviet period, which in turn changed how certain words were transliterated.

And thus is was that, by the 1970s, European musicologists were inevitably using the Soviet spelling for Rachmaninoff’s name and transliterating it as Rachmaninov. European record labels caught on and this is now the standard spelling as seen on European based labels. Sergei would turn over in his grave (which, incidentally, is in New York, not Russia) at this turn of events - all the more so because his contract with RCA stated exactly how his name was to appear on their recordings: Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In some ways, the European insistence in spelling Rachmaninoff’s name with a “v” mirrors Teddy Roosevelt’s desire to change American-English: Misguided, provincial, and reactionary.

Rachmaninoff’s signature, which shows both how he spelled his name, and his exquisite penmanship.

Spelling Rachmaninoff’s name with a “v” is wrong on so many levels: It ignores the way the composer signed his own name in Western Countries (where he lived the last 25 years of his life); it does not take into account the original Russian spelling of his name – Рахманиновъ – and it leads readers to mispronounce his name, which should end with an “f” sound, not a “v”. Not to mention, it was during the Soviet era that Russian musicians – both in and out of official positions – were downgrading Rachmaninoff as a composer. I recall asking a Soviet-era Russian musician how his fellow countrymen rated Rachmaninoff. “About like Gershwin”, he said. It’s a cruel irony that, 20 years after the Soviet Union wound up on the “ash heap of history” the post-Revolutionary spelling of Rachmaninoff’s name dominates Western music.

But I will never succumb to the Euro-snobs. For me, this often underrated composer will always be Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff.



Hank, your erudite article was a joy to read (and learn from). I remember the discussion in Wikipedia on the spelling of Rachmaninoff's name, and how it was eventually settled that the "ff" ending was the historically informed and correct one. As to English spelling, you may have noticed by now that I use the British way with it - and the same goes for my accent - because I studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. But since you admit to being old fashioned about this, we are not too far off each other here! Best regards, Carlos

Hank Drake said...

Carlos, truth be told, I prefer the English spelling for "cheque"!

Alexander Arsov said...

Very interesting article, Hank. I tend to use almost exclusively the ff-version because, as you say, that's how the composer himself wrote his name, though occasionally I may slip into the v-version.

But I am not quite sure this is phonetically and historically accurate. The last letter in the cyrilic version of the name corresponds to the "v" in the English alphabet - especially if it should be pronounced in a harder way than usual.

However that may be, we may all agree on Rachmaninoff's musical greatness.

PS What happens with the corresponding adjective: "Rachmaninovian" or "Rachmaninoffian"?

Hank Drake said...

Alexander, that's based on the post-Soviet transliteration of the final character in Rachmaninoff's name. Rachmaninoff based the English spelling of his name based on the Russian alphabet before the Soviets interferred with it. It also reflected the pronounciation of his name, with the soft "f" sound at the end.

Mike Ziolkowski said...

Hank, sorry to quibble, but the final tvordij znak, doesn't change the "v" to an "f". The distinction between the hard sign & soft sign is whether the consonant is palatized or not, and not one of voicing. That is, the pre-Soviet spelling is still an umambiguous "v". Phonological rules turn its pronunciation to "f" because it's at the end of a word. If it were adjectivized in Russian, it would go back to being a "v".

Still, your other justifications for using "ff" still hold to be sure.