Hello Backyard Geographers!
It’s been in the impeachment hearings. It’s been in the news. It’s the elephant in the room. Why is everyone mispronouncing Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev? As it turns out, they’re not. Here’s your cheat sheet to the who, what, where, and why behind Kyiv’s change in spelling.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has dealt with various issues around naming. In 1995, Ukraine demanded that its most populous city no longer be referred to as Kiev, but instead Kyiv. There are a few reasons behind this change, but they all tie back to Ukraine no longer being a part of the Soviet Union.
Kiev is the English understanding of the Russian spelling, which is stylized as “Киев,” whereas the Ukrainian spelling is stylized as “київ.” With the two spellings being visibly different in their languages of origin, it would only make sense that they are translated to English a bit differently. Ukrainian, not Russian, is the official language of Ukraine, so “Kyiv” is the translation that should be utilized by English-speakers, according to the US Board of Geographic Names (BGN). The BGN operates as a sector under the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The board’s job is to standardize names to facilitate ease of communication and clarity across cultures. The BGN has been a key player in this fight, and officially standardized Ukraine’s capital city’s name as “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev” back in 2006.
Before demanding that the name of its capital city change, Ukraine had been fighting to be recognized as “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” beginning in 1991. Ukrainians called for the removal of the oft-used “the” prior to “Ukraine” because of its implications about Ukraine’s independence.
There are several theories behind the roots of Ukraine’s name, but a popular one includes “oukraina” as meaning “borderland,” which facilitated it being referred to as “the Ukraine,” or “the borderland.” According to TIME, “The Ukraine is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times … Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it is just Ukraine. And it is incorrect to refer to the Ukraine, even though a lot of people do it.” Continuing to refer to “the Ukraine” is problematic for Ukrainians because it centers their entire existence around Russia, depriving them of a sense of national identity apart from Russia.
It’s easy enough to make the change to simply “Ukraine,” but back to Kyiv – how does one pronounce the new spelling? This article contains a pronunciation from Columbia University’s Yuri Shevchuk, stating that “native Ukrainians stress the first vowel, and pronounce it like the ‘i’ in the word ‘kid’ or ‘lid.’ The second vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable, and sounds like the ‘ee’ sound in ‘keel.’ The v is also pronounced a bit differently, like the end of the word ‘low’” (Zraick). It’s a bit different, indeed, but the recording in the article is beneficial for the English-speakers that this change targets.
With all of this in mind, why do so few people utilize the new spelling and pronunciation? For many, it’s a matter of not knowing this change has taken place. For others, it seems to be an issue of old habits dying hard. Business Insider says it best with “I can understand why this argument is infuriating to Ukrainians who want Western media organizations to use ‘Kyiv.’ It’s practically a Catch 22 — the media won’t use that word because no one understands it, but no one understands it because the media doesn’t use it.” However, the impeachment hearings have been a catalyst by which many have become acquainted with the new spelling and pronunciation.
The power of language has been especially prevalent in the media as of late, and can also be seen with Merriam Webster choosing the word “they” as its word of the year. Both of these examples show the transience of language, and that it is sometimes difficult to make a change to things that seem permanent and longstanding. However, all language is created and constantly changing, so it is necessary to appropriately address places, people, and populations by their preferred names.
Go forth and spread the word! #KyivNotKiev