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"They shoe horses, don't they?"


The Last Word on "Marfa"

by Lee Lowry
They shoe horse
What I'm writing about this time is the town of Marfa. My curiosity was piqued by still another Russian name being found in Texas, as is Odessa. The explanation of the character from The Brothers Karamazov makes good sense, although it's more of an indication of the lack of imagination at the time than much of anything else. But it makes sense.

As for the odd spelling, I can explain that. In Russian, as you may have guessed, Marfa simply means Martha. How it got to be Marfa has to do with what happened when Sts Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity to the Slavs and created an alphabet for them. Several Greek letters were adopted wholly or in part and remain characteristic of Russian today. Among the letters directly adopted from Greek are the gamma, phi, several letters also common with our alphabet, and a few that mostly found their place in orthodox church writings, though they also appeared in secular writing.

They existed in the Russian alphabet until Lenin's reforms of 1918, at which time, as I recall, four letters were dropped as being redundant. The four letters dropped were something that looked like our "v," but was really from upsilon, a dotted i that looked like ours, a strange beast that looked like a combination of a lower case b and a lower case t, called the "yat" and pronounced "yeh" and the Greek letter theta. The v was replaced with the backwards n; the dotted i and the peculiar "yat" with the letter "e" which already existed in Russian, but is pronounced "yeh" as in "yet." Now, the crux of the issue here: the Russians didn't have the soft "th" sound in their spoken language, so the theta was called "fita," because that was as close as they could come to the "th" pronunciation. Many Russians who have not completely mastered English will pronounce both the voiced and voiceless "th" as "d."

Prior to the revolution, particularly names of biblical origin, if they had the "fita" in them, were written with the theta character, as they would have been in Greek. In older texts Marfa was always written that way, because it was biblical on origin. In fact, many practices customary to the writing of Greek manuscripts were completely adopted into Russian church manuscripts even if they no longer made sense in Russian. The theta "fita" character was dropped partly because of its religious association and partly because Russian already rendered the "f" sound with the Greek letter phi. The theta wasn't needed because it wasn't ever pronounced "th" in Russian anyway. Since "f" was as close as the Russians could come to making the "th" sound, the name Martha became (and still is today) pronounced (and now spelled) Marfa with the letter that looks like phi. Dostoyevsky would certainly have named his character Marfa, and whoever made the translation the lady read (probably Constance Garnett--she did a ton of them in England in the late 19th century) chose to leave the Russian spelling of the name even though it would have made more sense to spell it as "Martha" for English-speaking readers.

So "Marfa" is simply Russian for "Martha." "Barbara" became "Varvara" in Russian because by the time the Russian alphabet adopted the beta from Greek, it had transformed into a "v" sound. Like Marfa, Theodore becomes Fyodor in Russian for the same reason, no "th" sound


Lee Lowry

It IS a labor of love for you -- your website; I can clearly see that whenever I stop by and visit. Keep up the great work. - Lee Lowry,
October 6, 2004

See Marfa, Texas

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