Several years ago Pizza Hut ran an ad with Mikhail Gorbachov. Russians sat around a Pizza Hut debating whether Gorbachov’s rule had been good or bad for the country. Wait, was it really a Pizza Hut? On the sign, which is glimpsed only briefly in the commercial, it looked like it was a ПИЏЏА ХАТ. Now, I realize transliteration is a tricky business. The Library of Congress, which sets transliteration standards for non-Roman alphabets for libraries, occasionally revises its standards. It’s never an exact science, though. You may have noticed that I spelled the name of the former Soviet/Russian leader Gorbachov even though most media sources spell it Gorbachev. That’s because to my ear Горбачёв, when pronounced by a Russian speaker, sounds like Gorbachov. And for years the Times of London agreed with me on that, although they finally caved in to pressure and started spelling the name Gorbachev like everybody else.
Transliterating something from the Roman alphabet into the Cyrillic alphabet can have similar problems. You’ll notice that Pizza Hut is transliterated ПИЏЏА ХАТ. Let’s start close to the end with that tricky letter Х, which has no equivalent in the Roman alphabet. It’s sort of like H, but more at the back of the throat. Linguists call it an aspirated K, and it’s transliterated (according to the Library of Congress rules) as kh. The letters A and T in Cyrillic actually match those letters in Roman, so it’s not a Hut, it’s a Khat. Instead of A they could have used the Cyrillic letter У, which is transliterated as U, but sometimes is pronounced like “oo”, as in food. It’s generally pronounced like “oo”, as in food, though, so instead of a Khut it would be a Khoot. Hey, wouldn’t that be a hoot?
Then there’s the thing that really got my attention: the use of the Cyrillic letter Џ twice. This letter is usually transliterated as “ts”, which would fit perfectly in transliterating “pizza” into Cyrillic…if it had only been used once. Since Cyrillic is derived from the Greek alphabet, you’ve probably recognized П as looking a lot like the Greek letter π, and when spoken in Russian it sounds just like “p”. The letter И sounds just like the “i” in “pizza”. But using Џ twice just gives us something that transliterates back into the Roman alphabet as “pitstsa”.
Thank you, Mr. Gorbachov. Sure, you invaded Estonia and Lithuania in an attempt to hold the Soviet Union together, and you left Boris Yeltsin in charge. But you gave Russia glasnost and opened it up to the West, allowing ordinary Russians to enjoy Pitstsa Khat.