After reading texnic's answer to my question Pronunciation of foreign IT abbreviations / languages, I became curious about why Latin won over Greek in our Russian schools.

Here in the Czech Republic we pronounce variable names according to the Greek tradition. So we say ипсилон, not игрек. But what historical/demographic processes can determine the choice of transcription?

By the way, why hasn't 'wai' [waɪ] settled down? Was it ever known in Russia?

  • Latin and Greek letters are equally important in math and science usage, so pronouncing Latin variable names as Greek seems to be "the exception that proves the rule". Could you please illustrate how Czech pronounces non-Greek letters as Greek besides Y? For instance, how would Czech pronounce F, G, and H?
    – KCd
    Feb 12, 2013 at 1:48
  • @KCd - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 12, 2013 at 9:13
  • 1
    Based on that wiki link, the Czech pronunciation of Latin letters is close to French pronunciation (though not as close as the Russian pronunciation of Latin letters is to French) with a notable counterexample being Y as ипсилон in Czech. It looks as if the Czech pronunciation of Latin letters is not based on a Greek tradition, although to be more certain it'd be nice to find a list showing how Greeks pronounce Latin letters.
    – KCd
    Feb 12, 2013 at 13:19
  • People gave good answers here. I thought it was a good point about the influence of French among the Russian literate groups. At the time of Napoleon's invasion, ironically there were nobles who spoke French far better than Russian! It makes sense that with that much French influence they could easily come to pronounce letters shared between foreign alphabets in a French way.
    – user1803
    Jun 29, 2013 at 0:17

4 Answers 4


In the 19th century Russian educated society spoke French, which is probably why they adopted the French pronunciation of the Latin alphabet when they are used as variables. Compare the French, German, and English pronunciation of A, B, C, ..., Z with the Russian pronunciation of these letters in scientific contexts and it's pretty clear that French is the source of the Russian pronunciation (H = аш, J = жи, Y = игрек are all French pronunciation) except for the Latin letters E and O that are pronounced as Russian letters.

The variable y typically shows up in contexts involving x and z, which are all Latin letters (e.g., the equation y = f(x) or the coordinates (x,y) and (x,y,z)), so it's completely reasonable to pronounce y as a Latin letter. In my experience the Greek letter ипсилон, as a Greek letter and not the Latin Y, is used quite rarely in scientific circles.


Russian science made its first steps under strong influence of Germans. Also, rich Russians hired private teachers from Germany and France for their children. That must be some of the most important reasons. So the question must be why Greek tradition exists in Czech Republic which is even closer to Germany.

  • Thanks for explanation =) However, in German Y is not the same as in France - see my comment to revoua and this link
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 23:44
  • @Umari I don't know why German and French Y is pronounced in different ways, but I suppose that Russians have chosen [игрек] because lowercase letters are mostly used in maths and physics, so pronounciation between 'y' and 'υ' has to be different.
    – КуЪ
    Feb 12, 2013 at 9:28

If you are referring to mathematics, the both letters are used: sometimes used Latin Y "игрек", sometimes the Greek ϒ.

In programming there is no Greek alphabet available for variable names so we use the Latin letters.

There are different standards for Latin letter names. For example in some textbooks "I" is called "и", in the others - "йот". Calling Latin Y "ипсилон" I encounter for the first time, this name is reserved for the Greek letter.

  • No, I am talking only about the letter Y. What I want to focus on is that it is pronounced in different ways (уай, игрик, ипсилон) depending on language.
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 22:41
  • And I wanted to know why it is pronounced игрик in Russian (which is a latin transcription).
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 22:43
  • 2
    @Umari "игрек". I think because it is Latin alphabet. Anyway there are different standards for Latin letter names. For example in some textbooks "I" is calles "и", in the others - "йот". Calling Latin Y "ипсилон" I encounter for the first time, this name is reserved for the Greek letter.
    – Anixx
    Feb 11, 2013 at 23:11
  • I'll know now, thanks for correction =) Then probably this topic should be closed. Can one close their own questions on SE?
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 23:39
  • 1
    @Anixx I've never seen latin "I" as "йот", but only "J". Could you please name your source?
    – Netch
    Feb 20, 2013 at 5:14

Because Latin is de facto international alphabet.

  • Well I know it. But isn't it strange that, in spite of the fact that the Cyrillic alphabet is related to Greek, it is not used as primary name for the letter? And in Europe Greek is taken as a base for maths/physics.
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 19:34
  • 1
    No, I'm wrong. It depends which country. In French it is игрэк, in German [ˈʔʏpsilɔn] etc. But the question remains: what could be the reason to use Latin, not Greek in our language?
    – petajamaja
    Feb 11, 2013 at 19:44

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