How do you spell царь in English? Czar, tsar, csar, or tzar?

Take a word that’s written in one alphabet (Cyrillic, say). Now spell it in another alphabet (Roman, say). Why? Well, Russian is written in Cyrillic, but it’s often necessary to write Russian words in English, using the familiar Roman alphabet.

Easy, right?

Well, not really. There just isn’t a one-to-one correspondence. The problem is both more acute and more solvable when a single country switches alphabets (as Turkey did with Turkish) or uses more than one alphabet simultaneously (as Yugoslavia did with Serbo-Croatian). In those cases a governmental organization makes some hard and fast decisions, and the problem goes away.

Lynne Murphy, in her aptly named blog “Separated by a Common Language,” tackles a further complication of the problem. What happens when we’re not dealing with a single country but with two or more countries that speak (more or less) the same language. You probably recognize the title of her blog as George Bernard Shaw’s description of the UK versus the US (or maybe it was Winston Churchill, or Oscar Wilde, but that’s a topic for another day). In this case Murphy explores how we spell the Russian word царь in English: is it czar, tsar, csar, or tzar? Personally I prefer the first, but crossword puzzles seem to favor the second — and does it differ from country to country?

It turns out that it does. Here are some data, showing the frequencies of Romanizations of царь around the world (well, in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand — which is a pretty good sampling of the Anglophone world):

Those results are striking. (At least they struck me, though it didn’t hurt.) Altogether, and unsurprisingly, the first two are overwhelmingly the most common, and they’re pretty close. But it’s the national differences that are surprising. As you see from examining the table, czar is by far the winner in the US as well as Australia and New Zealand, but tsar is by far the winner in Great Britain and Canada. Ireland splits its votes pretty evenly, but with csar of all things tied for first! Nobody seems to like tzar.

Ain’t spelling grand?” to quote nobody at all.

Categories: Linguistics