The anniversary of Chernobyl


On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster it seems appropriate to discuss the way the name is pronounced in English. In 1986, the main question was whether the stress should be placed on the first or second syllable: ‘Chernobyl, or Cher’nobyl. As it happens, this was a question that had been settled for the BBC as early as 1944, according to the entry in what was then a card index. Presumably there had been some action between Soviet and German forces there which had been important enough to get a mention in BBC news. The name also figured in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch, which bears out this supposition. Stress is on the second syllable.

But now, how to deal with the stressed vowel? Russian /o/, in stressed position, is probably closest to Southern British English /ɔː/, but since the reversion of off, cross and suchlike words to /ɒ/ from /ɔː/, there is no common English word spelt ‘o’ and pronounced /ɔː/ in British English (provided the following letter is not ‘r’, of course). The choice lies between /əʊ/ and /ɒ/. I’m not sure if there is a definite pattern in all cases that determines which of these two is chosen, but names ending in -ovich (Shostakovich, Rostropovich) have /əʊ/, while -ovsky names (Tchaikovsky, Mayakovsky) have /ɒ/. This might lead one to think that it depends on whether the syllable is open or closed, with /ɒ/ before consonant clusters. However, Prokofiev, which in English is /prəˈkɒfief/, with /ɒ/ in an open syllable, goes against this.

The Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation to announcers was always /tʃə(r)ˈnɒbɪl/, but I’m not sure that there is any good phonotactic reason why /tʃə(r)ˈnəʊbɪl/ might not be preferred.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Spanish problem of Barcelona (/-əʊnə/) versus Tarragona (/-ɒnə/), which may be influenced by the long or short vowel in the first syllable. But then there’s Pamplona (/-əʊnə/)…


  1. Foreign words with [o] would have been so much more easily dealt with in RP if the GOAT vowel hadn’t been fronted from [oʊ] to [əʊ]!

    In America it’s quite usual to hear [oʊ] in such words.

  2. I notice you avoid complicating the discussion by noting that Chernobyl is in Ukraine, and that there’s an alternative Ukrainian version of the name! That said, the differences are small, and the English spelling is based on the Russian anyway.

  3. garic – At the time of the accident, of course, few people in the West were even aware that there was a Ukrainian language, and all anglicisations were based on the Russian forms of names. If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m in favour of retaining established anglicisations whenever possible, and as Kiev hasn’t changed, I don’t see any reason for adopting ‘Chornobil’, which would probably, in any case, soon develop into /tʃə(r)ˈnɒbɪl/.

  4. The differences are quite small. It’s interesting to see an article like this – I actually appreciated the sincere approach to dissect this.

  5. Wow I had no idea about this. Chernobyl nuclear disaster is news to me, thank you for teaching me something new today.

    Mike Bell

  6. Like Mike, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is also new to me. I am glad to know about it through this blog post. It is not necessarily a good event, but I am now knowledgeable about it.

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