I say kubasa, you say kielbassa…

'Walking, talking Ukrainian encyclopedia' weighs in on burning debate


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It's one of those bitterly divisive debates that can result in newspaper editors beating each other senseless with their abridged dictionaries.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/06/2012 (3746 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s one of those bitterly divisive debates that can result in newspaper editors beating each other senseless with their abridged dictionaries.

I am referring to the unfortunate fact some words have roughly a billion different spellings, an awkward situation that causes the members of newspaper style committees to experience serious heart palpitations.

As a former copy editor, I understand their pain. There should be one word for one thing and it should have one spelling, a spelling that everyone agrees on.

A simple wooden sign outside the Perogy Club at St. Ivan Suchavsky Uk Orthodox cathedral adverties doughy delights within. See Redekop story. June8, 2012 - (Phil Hossack Winnipeg Free Press)

Unfortunately, that’s not the way the world works. Take the simple European garlic sausage, for example.

To you, the reader, it’s likely just a sausage. But to the newspaper editor, it’s kubasa. Or is it kielbassa? Or kobvasa? What about kobasa? Possibly kolbassa? Not to mention klobassa, kobassa and a host of other variations.

Being a food lover, I was asked to bring sense to the chaos for our special Ukrainian edition, so I touched base with the University of Manitoba, which pointed me to Orysia Tracz, a 66-year-old retired library assistant who has lectured at the university, translated seven books from Ukrainian to English, been published in the Free Press and the Globe and Mail, and writes a regular column for the U.S.-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper.

Orysia assured me I was speaking to the right person. “They say I’m the walking, talking Ukrainian encyclopedia,” she said, laughing. “If anybody needs anything, they phone me.”

When it comes to the garlic sausage, she said, almost every European country has one, along with its own unique spelling. Within some countries, there are different dialects, which can result in even more variations.

But the real problem results when a word travels to a country with a different alphabet. This results in a process known as “transliteration,” the spelling of a word in one language with the alphabet of another language.

“One thing that messes up spellings is Ukraine has a Cyrillic alphabet as opposed to the Latin or Roman one, the regular English alphabet,” Orysia explained.

“You have a problem in getting the letters to fit to bring across that pronunciation,” she noted. “What that means is different people will translate the same word differently, depending on how it sounds to them.

“It’s the way they hear it, plus they may pronounce it slightly differently and then it depends if they know how to put it down on paper in English.”

In Poland, the alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet, so their word for sausage (kielbasa) arrives here unchanged. Whereas it’s a different story in Ukraine, she said.

“In Ukrainian language, the correct word for smoked garlic sausage is kovbasa, with the accent on the last syllable,” Orysia said. “Sometimes people leave out the V.

“Somehow, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the accepted way of saying it is kubasa, with the accent on the first syllable. That’s a local thing. That’s how people pronounce it here. Who knows why? They like the way it sounds. Some people think you have to have two S’s for Ukrainian words like kubasa and it doesn’t need two S’s.”

It’s much the same drama with the humble stuffed dumpling, which also has enough different spellings — perogy, pierogy, pierogi, pirohy — to bring even hardened newspaper editors to their knees.

“The proper word for this dumpling in Ukraine is varenyk and the plural is varenyky,” Orysia noted. “In western Ukraine, long ago, varenyk became pyrih and the plural is pyrohy. The pioneers who came to Manitoba were from western Ukraine and their word was pyrih and pyrohy.”

In Manitoba, over the years and across generations, it seems the Ukrainian word and the Polish word (pierogy) collided and the end result was perogy, and its plural, perogies. “There are variations because some people don’t know how to write the word down properly or that’s they way they’ve always written it,” Orysia sniffs.

For her part, she insists while the various spellings of kubasa and perogy may be a source of friction for copy editors, there’s not much controversy in Winnipeg’s Ukrainian community.

“It’s not a heated debate,” she chortles. “They call it what they want to call it. At Tenderloin Meats on Main Street (where, by the way, their website spells garlic sausage “kobassa”) they have Kubi Dogs (hotdogs) and Kubi Sticks in pepperoni stick form — that’s a very Winnipeg thing.”

As a rule of thumb, Orysia recommends: “If you’re talking about Ukrainian sausages, use the Ukrainian spelling and if you’re talking about Polish sausage, use the Polish spelling.”

For her, that means, in Manitoba, the sausage is kubasa, the dumplings are perogies and the confusion over different spellings is a tempest in a teapot.

Everybody clear on that? Great! Put down your dictionaries!


Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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