How to Say: St Petersburg
A weekly guide to the words and names in the news from Martha Figueroa-Clark of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.
The husband of a former curator of the Hermitage Museum (pronounced HUR-mit-ij or air-mit-AAZH - the latter being closer to the way it is pronounced in Russian) in St Petersburg has been sentenced to five years in jail by a court in Russia, after being convicted of stealing exhibits. Nikolai Zavadsky (nick-uh-LY zav-AT-ski (-y as in 'cry')) and his late wife, Larissa Zavadskaya (larr-EE-suh zav-AT-skuh-yuh), had carried out the thefts over a number of years.
The Russian name for St Petersburg is Sankt Peterburg and is pronounced SANKT pee-teer-BUURK (the final 'g' in 'burg' is devoiced so that it sounds more like a 'k'). The city has previously also been called Petrograd and more recently, during Soviet times, Leningrad. Both of these names have established anglicised pronunciations: PET-ruh-grad and LEN-ing-grad respectively but the pronunciations pit-ruh-GRAT and lin-in-GRAT are closer to the Russian pronunciations. (In both cases, the final consonant in 'grad' is devoiced, so that the 'd' sounds more like a 't'). The city is often informally referred to by Russian speakers as 'Piter', pronounced PEE-teer (where the 't' is a soft consonant, similar to the sound that some English speakers make at the beginning of the word 'tulip' or 'Tuesday').
In general, it can be a challenge to recommend satisfactory pronunciations for Russian words or names in English, since there are many sounds in Russian which do not have an equivalent in the English sound system. One example of this is the palatalized (or soft) and velarized (or hard) consonants which exist in Russian (as in the 'p' and the 't' in 'Piter' above, which are both soft). Although we are constrained by the English sound system, we do our best, when forming our recommendations, to do justice to the native pronunciation.
(For a guide to our phonetic pronunciations, click here.)