The word Совет seems to always be transliterated in English as Soviet. However, it seems to me that it would be more appropriately transliterated as Sovyet.

I think this is the most logical variant as there are three syllables when Soviet is spoken by a native English speaker, whereas Совет and Sovyet each only have two syllables. This also seems to more accurately reflect the Russian pronunciation of the word (as I understand it).

I'm curious if there's something that I'm misunderstanding, or if this is just a result of some arbitrary difference between transliterations that has been simply been standardized over time, while some other words have not (e.g. tsar vs. czar).


Ideally, I'd like to find the etymology of the word Soviet that would include references to various historical usages and/or information about alternative transliterations.

  • It is more strage why it is not transliterated Sovet.
    – Anixx
    Jun 4, 2013 at 8:07
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    Forget what is "logical". You might as well ask why Москва is translated as Moscow instead of Moskva.
    – KCd
    Jun 4, 2013 at 14:39
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    @KCd: because it was actually pronounced similar to Moscow in Russian at some time. Words like церковь, морковь etc. on one side, and плотва, буква, тыква on the other side had the same ending ы in sg. nom. It's perfectly logical.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 4, 2013 at 14:54
  • @DownVoter Please explain why you've down voted this question so that we may better understand what should be improved. Jun 4, 2013 at 15:04
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    @KCd: what I wanted to say is that there is always some kind of logic behind transliterations (not that it's always consistent and/or immediately obvious). People don't just say: "oh, Moskva sounds stupid, let's change the last two letters".
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 4, 2013 at 16:32

5 Answers 5


Before the Russian orthography reform of 1918, the word was written as совѣтъ.

The letter ѣ, though having long since merged with е in standard Russian, is pronounced as a long vowel or even as a diphtong in several Slavic languages (compare Croatian Rijeka < рѣка).

It was common to transliterate ѣ as ie, and some borrowed Russian words, especially those borrowed before the ѣ-е merger, transliterated non-Russian diphtongs ie as ѣ: Вѣна < Wien, индѣецъ < (American) Indian etc.

As for the word itself, it's a loanword from Church Slavonic съвѣтъ which is a calque from Greek symboulion ("common counsel").


The transliteration ye is only used in two romanization systems: BGN/PCGN and Passport (1997–2010).

Both of these, though, use this version when

The digraphs ye and yë are used to indicate iotation at the beginning of a word and after vowels й, ъ, or ь.

See Romanization of Russian.

Your case does not match any of what is being described here so no ye. The other systems use e but I've always seen ie to keep the original reading of the Russian letter "Э".

Keep also in mind that the letter "y" is used to transcribe "ы" and it might explain why ye is not so used.

  • According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_transliteration_of_Cyrillic "While linguistic transliteration tries to preserve the original language's pronunciation to a certain degree, the latest version of the ISO standard (ISO 9:1995) has abandoned this concept, which was still found in ISO/R 9:1968 and is now restricted to a one-to-one mapping of letters." But, if I understand this correctly, according to the ISO 9 standard, it should be transliterated as Sovet. Jun 3, 2013 at 20:21
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    @Александр Well, yeah, you're talking about transliteration, but here, IMO, “transcription” is a more appropriate word.
    – kirelagin
    Jun 3, 2013 at 20:25
  • @kirelagin Indeed, you're quite right! I was confusing "transcription" with "transliteration". Thank you for pointing that out. Jun 3, 2013 at 20:42
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    Note that none of the Romanization systems mentioned in the article deals with pre-1918 ortography which was in effect at the time the word was borrowed.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 3, 2013 at 21:01
  • @Quassnoi You're correct about none of these Romanization systems being in place at that time. Thus, I've selected your answer instead. However, I think this answer still has merit; the contemporary systems seem to reenforce the original transliteration. Jun 4, 2013 at 16:06

For every Russian it is obvious that “y” is pronounced «й» (Nyan Cat being an obvious exception), so “Sovyet” will become [сав'йэт], but there is no «й» in Russian pronunciation. I think that's the reason why they didn't use “ye”.

Now, another option is “Sovet” but here v won't become soft — [совэт]. That's also not really cool.

In “Soviet” [сов'иэт] e sounds really close to what it should be in Russian. That и shouldn't be there, of course, and there is also a problem with stress. But if you pronounce it quickly and stress e you'll get something similar to [совыэт] which is fairly close to the Russian pronunciation.


Regarding etymology, as Quassnoi pointed out it is a borrowing from Church Slavonic, where it is in turn a calque from Greek. The word itself derives from two Proto-Indo-Europeam roots: com meaning "with" and u̯eq̆- (u̯oq̆s meaning "voice"). So the literal meaning is "co-voice".


I'm not sure of the etymology behind the English translation, but vyet sounds kind of weird to us English people; it just seems more natural for us to use viet instead.

  • I would agree that it seems more natural to me too, but only because that's the only way we've ever seen it. My point is that it seems like Sovyet more closely resembles the Russian pronunciation; the word is after all, a loanword to English. Jun 3, 2013 at 19:58
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    @Александр Sovyet sounds like something from a Schwarzenegger movie.
    – kirelagin
    Jun 3, 2013 at 20:40
  • @Александр When the word comes from one language to another it starts to live there by new rules. For example, in Russian we say 'компьютер' and not 'компьюта', 'Шекспир' and not 'Шейкспиа', etc.
    – Artemix
    Jun 4, 2013 at 7:42
  • @Александр the word has no "y"-sound, why it should be in transliteration?
    – Anixx
    Jun 4, 2013 at 8:09
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    @Александр there is no "y"-sound in that pronunciation. The Russian e is not iotized after consonants. It it was совьет, then there would be y-sound there.
    – Anixx
    Jun 4, 2013 at 17:28

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