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Shawurma? Shawerma? What Do You Call the Scent of Russian Summer?

7 10 5

Шашлык: shashlyk, grilled meat

Let’s say you’re on a getaway weekend in St. Petersburg. You’ve splurged on a hotel — canal views — and have just given a scalper half a month’s salary for great seats at the Mariinsky Theater. So you are feeling rather poor. But hungry. You look around for a cheap bite to eat. You suddenly have a craving for some classic street food: a gyro. What do you ask for?

Okay, this is a trick question. If you’re in Moscow, you want шаурма (shawurma, stress on the last syllable). In St. Petersburg you want шаверма (shaverma, stress on the middle syllable). Why does the same food have two different names in the two Russian capitals?

I’m not an Arab speaker, so I’m relying on commentary by Russian scholars who actually know something about this. Arabic, they explain, is a consonantic language, which means that it is written as consonants with diacritical marks placed above or below the letters to indicate the vowel sounds. This food is spelled something like SHWRM with vowel sounds as marks above and below the letters. Russian doesn’t have the “w” sound. It gets transliterated either as a Russian “В” — Dr. Watson is Ватсон — or the Russian “У” — Oscar Wilde is Уайлд. So that “w” gets transliterated two ways: шаверма and шаурма.

That makes sense, but it doesn’t explain how the transliteration turned out to be different in the two cities. Here happenstance seems to have played a........

© The Moscow Times