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(For an updated and expanded note on transliteration please see the newer page)


The transliteration of foreign names remains an unsettled issue in English.  In recent years the former tendency to Anglicize or Latinize foreign names has gradually become less common.  In most cases the names of modern foreigners are now transmitted as faithfully to the vernacular as an author can represent them.  The names of Ancient and Medieval monarchs, on the other hand, are often still given their English equivalents.  The problem is not just one of consistency: the English names contrast starkly with the ones that do not have English or even Latin equivalents and also with the names of modern individuals that have remained unaltered.  So, in a list of Byzantine emperors we may encounter Constantine, Eirene, Nikephoros, Staurakios, Michael, Basil and so on (following the recommendation of the authors of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium).    But such criteria for change are very arbitrary and uneven—until recently Irene, though not a very common English name, was regularly substituted for Eirene.  And what makes Basil any more common than Irene?  Moreover, providing English equivalents for such names is not only arbitrary and disruptive, it also makes names written in this manner suitable only for an English speaker.  Like the editors of Rulers and Governments of the World, I find the only consistent approach to be a faithful transcription (and if necessary transliteration) of the standard vernacular form, using, if necessary, standard international characters.  The resulting forms may seem a little outlandish but such are the cultures that produced them.  Moreover, where English equivalents exist, they will be recognizable easily enough.



Since the English alphabet includes the Latin one in its entirety, Latin presents the least problems in transliteration.  The only changes to the original spelling are differentiating v and u (both written v in the ancient and medieval period) and writing g where c stands for it (as in traditionally-written Latin names like Gaius for Caius and Gnaeus for Cnaeus).  The late form j is not used, both because of its late appearance and because it was not pronounced differently from i and y in Latin (thus Iohannes instead of Johannes).



Ancient and Medieval Latin writers transcribed Greek names according to their own custom, for example substituting c for κ, and Latin endings like us for ος and aeus for αιος.  This practice transferred into English but is now increasingly—and correctly—abandoned in favor of a more Greek transcription.  Here one runs into problems of orthography versus pronunciation.  Medieval Greek was sounded very much like Modern Greek, with η sounding more like ι than ε and with β sounding more like our v than our b.  In diphthongs like αυ and ευ, υ also sounded like our v or even f.  But to represent these phonetic changes would obliterate the orthography of the Greek words and the inexperienced may not be able to deduce the proper Greek spelling from the transcription.  The transliteration employed here is intended to faithfully represent the Greek orthography.  Greek υ is transcribed as u in diphthongs and as y between consonants: Eurydikē for Ευρυδικη.   Here ē stand for η, to distinguish it from e for ε.  Similarly, ō stands for ω to distinguish it from ο.  In the former case, the writing also reflects a significant difference in pronunciation between the two letters.  The letter h by itself represents the rough breathing at the beginning of Greek words starting with a vowel.  Otherwise it is employed in representing the aspirated consonants θ, φ, and χ.  Since κ is represented by k, its aspiration χ is represented by kh rather than the more traditional Latin ch.  Likewise, ph for φ and th for θ.  A rough breathing mark over a ρ (initial or second in a sequence of two) indicates that the r is rolled.  But since this is not aspiration, I have not written rh in these cases as is sometimes done.  The only real departure from the Greek orthography that I make is writing n in cases where g stands for it, i.e. Angelos (instead of Aggelos) for Αγγελος, Ankhialos (instead of Agkhialos) for Αγχιαλος, and Sphinx (instead of Sphigx) for Σφιγξ.  Suffice it to say that any n that occurs before a g, k, kh, or x in a Greek word represents an original γ (g).  Although in this period β was pronounced like our v, it is transcribed as b throughout.  The consonant ψ has to be transcribed with two letters, ps.


Table of correspondences and approximate pronunciation:


Α α

A (pronounced as in father)

Ν ν


Β β

B (pronounced v)

Ξ ξ

X (as in axe)

Γ γ

G (now aspirated, sometimes y)

Ο ο

O (as in on)

Δ δ

D (now aspirated)

Π π


Ε ε

E (as in ever)

Ρ ρ


Ζ ζ


Σ σ ς


Η η

Ē (as in eagle)

Τ τ


Θ θ

Th (as in thorn)

Υ υ

Y (as in every)

Ι ι

I (as e in eve)

Φ φ


Κ κ


Χ χ

Kh (like Scottish or German ch)

Λ λ


Ψ ψ

Ps (p+s)

Μ μ


Ω ω




Ai (as e in ever)


Au (av or af as in navigate or after)


Ei (as e in even)


Eu (ev or ef as in every or hefty)


Oi (as e in even)


Ou (like u in sugar)



This alphabet was adapted from Greek in Bulgaria in the late 9th or early 10th century and spread to Russia and Serbia in the Middle Ages.  It is today used (and customized) by a number of modern languages, most of them Slavic.  Here the cumbersome and sometimes ambiguous Library of Congress system is a very undesirable choice.  Instead, I have preferred to use the consistent and unambivalent system developed for Serbo-Croatian.  The few additional characters necessary to transcribe Cyrillic letters not found in Serbian can be supplied from other Latin alphabets.  The special characters used here include š for ш (our sh), č for ч (our ch as in chin), c for ц (our ts as in lets), ž for ж (zh like s in measure or like French j), đ for ђ (like English j) and others.  Some Cyrillic letters need to be represented by two Latin ones in transliteration.  This applies to both consonants and vowels.  The Serbian letters љ and њ are represented by lj and nj.  Bulgarian and Russian щ is transcribed with two letters as št and šč, respectively.  On the other hand, the Bulgarian and Russian vowels я and ю are represented by ja and ju.  For a complete list, see the table below.  Unlike Greek and English, Cyrillic letters can be pronounced only one way in each vernacular.


Table of correspondences and approximate pronunciation (B=Bulgarian, R=Russian, S=Serbian):

А а

A (as in father)

Ф ф


Б б


Х х

H (sometimes like Scottish ch)

В в

V (when final, sometimes f as in off)

Ц ц

C (like ts in lets)

Г г

G (as in get)

Ч ч

Č (like ch in chin)

Д д


Ш ш

Š (like sh in shin)

Е е

E (BS: as in ever, R: as in yet)

Щ щ

Št (B) Šč (R)

Ж ж

Ž (like s in measure)

Ъ ъ

Ă (B: like u in burn)

З з


Ы ы

Y (R: ă+y)

И и

I (as e in eve)

Ь ь

’ (BR: soft sign)

Й й

J (BR: as y in toy)

Э э

Č (R: like e in ever)

К к


Ю ю

Ju (BR: like you)

Л л


Я я

Ja (BR: like yak)

М м


Ё ё

Ë (R: as in yonder)

Н н


Ђ ђ

Đ (S: like English j)

О о

O (as in on)

Ј ј

J (S: like English y in toy)

П п


Љ љ

Lj (S: softened l in l+y+vowel)

Р р


Њ њ

Nj (S: softened n in n+y+vowel)

С с

S (as in salt)

Ћ ћ

Ć (S: similar to č but weaker)

Т т


Џ џ

Dj (S: similar to đ but weaker)

У у

U (as in sugar)