A Moscow Times story by Victor Sonkin reports on a dictionary I’d very much like to have (at least, if it were a convenient little book instead of a “module” for a piece of equipment I don’t own):

In April, the Moscow-based company ABBYY Software House released a new electronic dictionary. It is the first work of its kind, even though the dwellers of Russia’s two largest cities have needed such a tool since time immemorial. It is a Moscow-St. Petersburg dictionary—one that gives “translations” of Moscow words into Petersburgese.

Social and cultural differences between the two Russian capitals have been piling up for more than three centuries, and language has been no exception to this process. The variations start with phonetics: Muscovites pronounce certain words differently from their northwestern rivals. For instance, the “ah” sound, as in “Mahskvah,” is more prominent in their speech. Small interjections and greetings follow suit. In Moscow a general question is “Chto?” (What?), while in St. Petersburg you will hear “Kak?” (How?) in the same context, at least from older people.

The more noticeable division, however, is lexical: when different words are used for the same things. One often cited example is the word for “curb,” which is bordyur in Moscow but porebrik in Petersburg. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ABBYY’s dictionary contains 76 items; there are actually many more. The list of objects and notions that are expressed differently includes metro pass, house entrance, eraser, doughnut, turtleneck, newsstand, grand (as in the slang word for “a thousand”), cigarette stub and chicken, to name a few. Even borrowed words react differently. The Middle Eastern snack known in the West as a gyro or doner kebab is called shaurma in Moscow but shaverma—with a different stress!—in St. Petersburg.

The two “dialects” are mutually comprehensible, but misunderstandings do occur. Once, while visiting my St. Petersburg relatives, I went to a shop to buy some bread. “Is the bread fresh?” I asked the woman behind the counter. Bewildered, she replied, “We don’t have any.” Now it was my turn to be puzzled, since the shelves behind her were bursting with bread. Then it dawned on me: It was all white bread, called bulka in St. Petersburg; they only say khleb, or “bread,” when referring to the dark kind.

I can’t find any mention of it at the ABBYY sites (Russian, English), but I probably just don’t know where to look; I don’t imagine Sonkin made it up. At any rate, I’m fascinated by this sort of dialect difference, and would appreciate any further information from Russian readers. For one thing, what are the differing stresses on shaurma and shaverma? And of course I’m curious about the words for metro pass, house entrance, eraser, and so on.

(Via blogchik, Michele Humes’s Russophile blog.)

Addendum. See the article by V.I. Belikov, “Сравнение Петербурга с Москвой и другие соображения по социальной лексикографии” [Comparison of Petersburg and Moscow and other observations on social lexicography].

Update. The Словарь «Языки русских городов» is online and expanding as people add entries.


  1. The first variant is шаурмá. At least that’s how I heard it pronounced in southern Russia.

  2. Forgot to add that this is obviously a borrowed term from Arabic: شوارما.

  3. I definitely saw this online sometime ago. I’ll try to dig up the link.
    The difference of use of the word “khleb” are widespread, I think, people in small Ukrainian town of Korsun, where I spent my childhood summers referred to a “baton” as “bulka khleba”.

  4. Ha! I feel vindicated – remember, LH, when I just started to annoy you (and some of your readers)on this blog, about a year or two ago, I have quarrelled with an expat commenter on this exact matter – differences between the two Russian capitals, linguistic included – which she denied exist at all!
    I’d love to hear Piter’s residents say shaurmA myself; I can’t imagine how else would you pronounce it. (Also, why everybody always assume if similar word found in Arabic and, say, Uzbek or Azeri its origins are in Arabic and not the other way around? Camels travel both ways, you know…)
    Eraser: all I can think is ластик vs. резинка, but it seems to me the opposition here is more formal vs. casual than Piter vs. Moskva.
    And I would “divide in two” the anecdote about the bakery shop. I can assure you, every Moskvich knows that булка is white bread and it has certain distinctive shape, so he wouldn’t ask for “bread” when he sees bulki. Besides, I just love this typically Moscow proninciation of the “bakery” (булочная) as булошная; it smells like a fresh loaf…

  5. I’ve heard and said both ластик and резинка. I think it’s more a matter of redundancy (couch/sofa) than true dialectal variation (rubber band/gum band).

  6. Just had a look at the dictionary. Living in St. Petersburg, I’ve never heard the words “вставочка”, “стирашка” or “мотор” used, I guess they are obsolete now. Also never heard “шкодный” in the meaning “забавный” from a Muscovite.

  7. Huh. Well, that’s too bad — sounds like they did a pretty sloppy job. Map’s link says “Словарь создан на основании материалов, представленных в Интернете, материалов Анны Новиковой и собственных наблюдений автора” [The dictionary was compiled on the basis of materials from the Internet and from Anna Novikova and the personal observations of the author]; I don’t imagine there was much cross-checking and consultation with inhabitants.
    I tried downloading and unzipping the dictionary but my computer doesn’t know how to handle an LSD file. Ah well.

  8. Well, I can only speak for myself: I can’t say that these words are wrong – only that they don’t seem to be that common. About 95% of the dictionary material seems to be correct and more or less up-to-date.
    To use the dictionary, you need to have Lingvo dictionary software installed.

  9. I was told that the different names for the aforementioned fast-food item are results of the owners of the places being from different parts of the Middle-East. Which also seems a more logical explanation than the words themselves assimilating differently in Petersburg Russian than Moscow Russian. When I was in St. Petersburg last time I noticed there was an increasing amount of ‘shaurma’ places whereas earlier I almost only saw ‘shawerma’ places there.
    One other difference I remember being told about was that Muscovites say ‘proezdnoj bilet’ whereas in Piter they say ‘proezdnaja karta’ for bus cards. Or maybe it was the other way around?

  10. So is it shavérma?

  11. Nothing about stress, but the fact of different spelling Moscow/Piter is confirmed:
    Еще я всех достал словом шаверма (ну как же, Триполи как аналог Москвы, где торгуют шаурмой, Бенгази – как Питер, а тут уже шаверма). Водила услышал про шаверму, и тоже начал повторять, не шаурма, а шаверма. И был очень удивлен, что данное блюдо подают и в России. Напели ему, что шаурмой у нас в метро торгуют. Люди едут под землей и чавкают этим адским блюдом. И еще оказывается “лаваш” на ливийском диалекте – это “сыр”.
    Also, see recipe and thread here; notice the different texture of filling and souce (compared to donner kebab or gyro), which speaks for the Middle-Eastern origin rather than Turkish/Greek.

  12. John Kozak says

    I’ve never heard “gyro kebab” before, but “shawarma” is the standard term for this type of dish in UK middle-eastern (but not Turkish) restaurants.

  13. In St. Petersburg the pronunciation is indeed shavérma.
    In Holland it’s like this:
    * shoarma is middle-eastern cutted meat, officialy lamb but in practice often pork
    * gyros is Greek cutted meat, spiced a bit differently; I am not sure from which animal it is
    * döner kebab is from Turkey and is composed of what’s left over after the slaughtering process

  14. We call it a shawarma in Montreal too (sh @ ‘w a r m @ with @=schwa). It’s made out of seasoned lamb sliced off a spit. Most of the Middle Eastern fast food restaurants here are Lebanese, so I suppose it’s probably from that. A gyro here is something quite different, it’s more like warmed up chopped balogna or something. I think that in Toronto a shawarma might be more likely to be called a doner, but a gyro would be basically the same in both cities.

  15. I think a lot of the problem is in transliteration of the words. Russian uses Cyrillic but it’s not used in the Middle East.
    Here in England, no try again, here in Portsmouth, England depending on which Indian (in reality Pakistani) Restaurant I go to depends on how the names for the various dishes are spelt, even though they might generally be pronounced the same way. Add the problem that different parts of Pakistan have different dialects so their pronounciation of the same word will differ. So even if a restaurant uses the same spelling it might use a different pronounciation.
    None of this is a problem as being local I use the local English pronounciation, as does everyone else.
    I think though that what the dictionary is seeing is probably just a few odd words that are only used by the few people they asked. Or maybe being cynical they just needed a sales pitch for a book.

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