Since Russia has been in the news consistently, we have been treated to all the idiosyncrasies of usage, spelling, and pronunciation that inevitably come with reporting on non-Western countries—such as some commentators’ preference for the definite article when referring to Ukraine.
One of these idiosyncrasies concerns the Russian capital city. How do you pronounce “Moscow” in English? Is it MAHS-kow, the second syllable pronounced the same as one does the milk-producing animal? Or is it MAHS-koh, the latter syllable taking the long “o” of “coat” or “go”?
There is some interesting social history to this question. During the Cold War, as now, one heard both pronunciations by Western commentators. In Russian, the city is Moskva (Москва). The native pronunciation would seem closer to the English pronunciation with the long “o”; indeed, I have known many native Russian speakers and recall that they all used the “-koh” pronuncation when speaking English, although this is merely my own limited anecdotal experience.
As if to confirm this point, I noticed that my own pronunciation shifted as I learned more Russian. I used to say MAHS-kow exclusively. As my Russian improves, I say MAHS-koh more often, though I don’t recall making any kind of conscious choice to do so. I still use both pronunciations, however, and don’t consider either one to be more correct or accurate or prestigious than the other.
As with anything that pertains to humans, however, prestige and ego do play roles in pronunciation. The American author Charles Harrington Elster once addressed this question in his The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, which I heartily recommend. (You can actually find the passages about Moscow on Google Books. They begin on page 266.) Elster traces the history of the pronunciation of Moscow in the Western broadcast media and also asks Russian experts their preferences.
Elster interviewed Richard Pipes, one of the most respected academic experts on Russia, and found that Pipes preferred the “-kow” pronunciation. (Pipes was born in Poland and has a near-native command of Russian.) Pipes went as far as to say that “in academic circles I always call it MAHS-kow. […] If anybody called it MAHS-koh my ears would perk up. I would find it a little bit affected to say MAHS-koh.”
Interesting: the long “o” is considered, at least by Pipes, to be affected and pretentious. Might this have anything to do with the fact that, as Elster also documents, the long “o” pronunciation was traditionally the preference of BBC correspondents and other British sources?
But what’s pretentious to some is attractive and trendy to others. In fact, Elster writes, “since the 1980s I have noticed that the broadcast media have made a striking shift from saying ‘Moscow’ with the ‘cow’ to saying it with a long ‘o’ as in ‘go.'” Did these media figures, particularly the American ones, change their pronunciation to sound more learned and in line with the perceived chic of the BBC?