Why we say “Kyiv” and not “Kiev”: The difficulty of translating place names

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama made an unusual faux-pas in an address on Euromaidan — he referred to Ukraine not as “Ukraine,” but rather “the Ukraine.”

Obama’s flub received a decent amount of media attention — Time, for example, noted that Ukrainian Americans likely “cringed” at the president’s insertion of that definite article. Once again, the country has become the center of the media’s attention in recent weeks, and while more people seem aware of the connotation of referring to it as “the Ukraine,” another question has popped up regarding the way we refer to Ukraine’s capital:

Kyiv or Kiev?

Historically, English speakers have referred to the Ukrainian capital city as “Kiev,” but you’ve likely seen a different spelling — “Kyiv” — in most of the recent coverage of the war in Ukraine. 

While Ukrainians have been pushing for this change since the country became independent in the early 1990’s, a more aggressive online campaign by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, #KyivNotKiev, took hold in late 2018. Shortly thereafter, most major American English-language publications stopped using “Kiev” in 2019.

That was when the New York Times and the Associated Press (AP) both updated their respective style guides to more closely reflect the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of the city’s name.

“We are making a significant change in our style for the Ukrainian capital city Kiev,” the AP stated in Aug. 2019. “It will henceforth be written in text, captions, and datelines as Kyiv.”

Translating place names into a non-local language can be tricky. It’s not unusual for places to have completely different names in their native language than they do in the target language — for example, the country we call “Greece” in English is “Elláda” in its native Greek language. Even the English word “Moscow” is quite different from the more faithful-to-Russian “Moskva.” 

These names can evolve over time, oftentimes for geopolitical reasons. In the AP’s explanation of why they changed their style guide, the publication noted that “to many Ukrainians, the former spelling Kiev appears outdated because it is associated with a time when Ukraine was part of the Russian and Soviet states, rather than an independent country.”

In the case of Kyiv, English speakers — and many others who use the Latin alphabet — grew accustomed, over centuries, to using a spelling that more closely resembles the way it’s spelled in Russian. Much like referring to the country as “the Ukraine,” referring to the capital as “Kiev,” can have imperialist implications that are quite easily avoided when using the Ukrainian-derived transliteration, “Kyiv.” 

Another challenge in translating place names is phonology. In fact, no matter how an English speaker spells the city’s name, it’s likely that their pronunciation won’t accurately reflect that way it’s pronounced in Ukrainian or Russian, simply because both languages’ phonemic inventories and phonological rules are just plain different from that of English. 

For example, the “v” in the Ukrainian “Kyiv” often sounds more like a short “w” or “u” sound. In the Russian “Kiev,” that very same letter sounds like an “f.” Neither of these come across in most English speakers’ pronunciation of the word, which often rhymes with the words “sleeve” or “give,” depending on the speaker.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that languages are ever-changing entities. While the now-prevalent English spelling, Kyiv, isn’t what we’ve always used in English, it’s an easy change to make if it helps show solidarity with Ukraine in its struggle for full recognition as an independent nation.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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