In the past several weeks the eyes and ears of the world have turned towards Eastern Europe. Shocking and horrific images have flooded out of Ukraine. Many feel helpless, but nonetheless want to show their support for the Ukrainian people in any way they can. One subtle yet accessible way the Ukrainian Government has proposed to do just that is the #Kyivnotkiev language reform movement. What does Kyiv not Kiev mean? What is that movement all about? And what can the many regional linguistic curiosities teach us about Ukraine and the languages of the land?
A Tale of Two Languages
It’s important to recognize some linguistic background. The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian. However it shares the spotlight with its linguistic sister Russian in the daily life of most Ukrainians. According to a 2015 poll taken in Ukrainian regions not under direct influence or control of Russia, 15% of Ukrainians considered Russian their native language and an additional 22% considered themselves as using Russian and Ukrainian equally. Both belonging to the cozy East Slavic sub-family, it’s hard to overstate the linguistic similarities. With a high-level of mutual intelligibility, the differences often come down to sound correspondences and some vocabulary substitutions that native speakers often navigate easily. And that’s without mentioning the regional and historic influence that Russian has had.
So, given this linguistic background, the phonological differences between the two dominant languages in the region (remember those ‘sound correspondences’ from earlier?) and the fact that Ukraine’s capital has an extremely long history during as a prominent city, there is significant variation to the anglicized versions of the name. In fact, it may have surprised you to hear professional news people vacillating between pronouncing it as a single syllable /ki:v/, like ‘Steve’ and two-syllable /ˈkiːɛv/…like ‘Steeyev’. It may have also surprised you to see the variant spellings Kyiv and Kiev. Indeed, this Russian/Ukrainian language juxtaposition can bee seen in the variant forms of several cities in Ukraine: Lviv/Lvov, Kharkiv/Kharkov, Odesa/Odessa. These variant spellings are reflective of some of the sound changes that have taken place since the relatively recent divergence of Russian and Ukrainian.
Kyiv like “Steve”, Not Kiev like “Steeyev”
This leads us to the question of which standard is commonly used and the somewhat controversial topic of which standard should be used. From Wikipedia:
‘The transliteration Kyiv was legally mandated by the Ukrainian government in 1995, and since then, it has tried to make Kyiv more widely used abroad. At the international level, this transliteration was approved by the Tenth United Nations Conference on Standardization of Geographical Names in 2012, but did not end up making much of an impact. Prior to 2019, there were few cases of organizations switching to the “Kyiv” spelling, because many people outside Ukraine did not see the need or thought that the issue was “imposed by nationalists on purpose”. The outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War engendered many Western media outlets (including Wikipedia) to switch spelling.’
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs started the #Kyivnotkiev online campaign as part of the larger CorrectUA campaign, advocating for the use of the Ukrainian variants in English-language media outlets.
And so, for those who want to follow this recommendation, we’ll end with some tips on using the official Ukrainian endorsed spellings and pronunciations. One of the major sound correspondences that separates Ukrainian from many other Slavic languages is the shift from o>i inside of words. Hence, Lviv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv as opposed to Lvov, Kharkov and Chernigov. And when it comes to the main event, the standard English pronunciation for the Ukrainian variant of Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv is ‘Keev’ [ki:v] like “Steve”.
So there we have it. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge you can walk away more informed and better equipped to take in and contextualize the news that we will no doubt continue receiving in the coming weeks and months.