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In a Russian math book published in 1888, I see that Fermat, whose name today is written as Ферма, appears in the book as Фермат. He is in the book largely because of Fermat's little theorem, now called малая теорема Ферма, and this result in the book is called теорема Фермата.

None of the letters in this name were directly affected by the 1917/1918 spelling reforms, but I still suspect that that may have been the time period when the name was changed from Фермат to Ферма. The spelling Ферма changes the pronunciation of the end of the name, so I'm surprised the spelling was changed unless the т was silent in the Russian pronunciation of Фермат at that time (as it is in French today), but that would be strange.

Can anyone tell me if the Russian spelling of foreign names before the 1917/1918 spelling reforms was noticeably non-phonetic, and did part of the reforms address that issue?

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Can anyone tell me if Russian spelling of foreign names before the 1917/1918 spelling reforms was noticeably non-phonetic and did part of the reforms addressed that issue?

The reform had little to do with it.

There are several conflicting principles that make a "good" transliteration:

  1. It reflects the original spelling
  2. It reflects the original pronunciation
  3. It works well with the host language phonetics
  4. It works well with the host language grammar

Greek, Latin and Hebrew names, for the most part, lend themselves well to everything except p.4. That's why most of these names use "grammar-conscious" transliteration: the stem is taken from the genitive or the accusative form, and the native declensional endings are replaced with the Russian ones: Cato > Catonis > Катон, Venus > Veneris > Венера etc. In Greek words, the diphthongs are transcribed rather than transliterated (αι > и, ευ > ев, very early, even in Glagolitic texts), but that's about it.

English and especially French names don't really work well with any of these principles. Earlier, the authors preferred to keep the original spelling and adapt the words for Russian grammar. If a person had a latinized name, all the better, the authors knew well how to deal with Latin. That's why Fermat and his friends used to be called Фермат, Невтон, Картезий, Гугений, Каркавий, Бернуллий etc.

Most loanwords of the time had to be shoehorned into Russian grammar, not just names. A large part of Russian maritime terminology was borrowed from Dutch, German and English around the early 1700s, but you'd have to squint really hard to see its origins.

Still, it was a tendency, not a rule: there are numerous examples of English and French names transcribed rather than transliterated even in the medieval literature. And later, the tendency shifted towards favoring the original pronunciation over the original spelling and dumping the requirement to work well with the Russian grammar.

It was quite a long journey, which is not completely over yet. French names succumbed first (Pushkin's Дидерот had been an obvious sensational spelling); Дисней, Чаттерлей, Гомец, Бальтазар etc. made their way well into the 1930s; Гейнц, Герберт into the 1980s; and Ганс, Генри etc. are still in use.

Some names had since been converted (like Ферма, Дефо, Крузо, Бокаччо etc.); the others still use the "traditional" spelling: Вашингтон, Карлейль, Конан Дойль, Гюго and so on.

I own an Italian-Russian dictionary published in the 1930s, whose author was very vocal about properly transcribing Italian names and loanwords. According to him, адажио, сольфеджио, Бокаччио and similar had no place in Russian writing. Бокаччио has lost this battle, but адажио and сольфеджио are still around.

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Well, in French the name of Pierre de Fermat is pronounced Пьер де Ферма́. And I don't actually think the change is due to any reforms in the Russian language but just to different approaches in translation. It is universally recognized that both the transliteration and transcription of names have always been widely used in translation, with a preference for transliteration. Nowadays transcription is preferred. But still there are lots of exceptions due to traditional usage, and so on and so forth.

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  • In my experience, Russian usually did not change the spelling of foreign personal names once they were in the language, at least when still referring to people from an older era, with the most obvious example being the use of Г for the foreign letter H until the 19th or 20th century: Гамлет and Гитлер are still standard even though they'd have been written as Хамлет and Хитлер if they first entered Russian today, like the old Гудзон and the modern Хадсон. This is why I was surprised that Фермат changed to Ферма in reference to the same person from the 1600s.
    – KCd
    Oct 28, 2023 at 15:38
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    There are different examples, different reasons , even William was changed from Вильям to Уильям, and if Ломоносов wrote "Невтон"( Newton ) , we know him as Ньютон.
    – V.V.
    Oct 29, 2023 at 13:35
  • Thanks for the additional last name example Ньютон.
    – KCd
    Oct 29, 2023 at 16:39

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