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Chicken Kyiv?

The question of 'What's in a name?' is sometimes a bit tricky.

By James HagengruberEurope editor / May 15, 2009



Kiev or Kyiv?

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It's a debate we've been having at the Monitor for a while. In a story we published today (click here to read it), you'll see that we've decided to switch to Kyiv.

Unlike the English world's use of Firenze over Florence, for instance, the two spellings of Ukraine's capital both result in approximately the same sound. But the swapping of a single letter in this case has political echoes and underscores an increasingly fractious divide between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who live together in the same country.

The Russian spelling is Kiev. Ukrainians prefer Kyiv. Shortly after the country gained independence in 1991, it asked the rest of the world to go with the Y spelling. The US State Department (and the CIA), along with the United Nations, among others, have adopted the change. Most Western news organizations have not.

The issue is fairly sensitive. Many Ukrainians have lingering bad memories of the times when their lives were controlled by Moscow (the Monitor recently explored this here). That's one reason why Ukrainians bristle a bit when Westerners describe their country as "the" Ukraine, as if it were still a territory. Kyiv/Kiev is a bit more subtle of a difference, but it's rooted in the same desire by Ukrainians to be recognized as an independent country with a language and culture that are similar, but not identical, to Russia's.

Typically, we like to call people what they want to be called. And the request by the Ukrainian government, as well as feedback we've received in the past from readers, seemed reasonable enough. But to prevent our stories from being overlooked by Internet search engines – not to mention our desire to avoid confusing our readers – we'll continue to place a parenthetical reference to the Russian spelling.

We do the same with Mumbai (Bombay). South Africa's capital? Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria.

James Marson, who wrote today's story on the rise of radical nationalistic parties in Ukraine, pointed out the irony of unveiling the name change in a story about the growing turmoil between Russians and Ukrainians. The timing wasn't intentional, we assured him.

Oleh Tyahnybok, a nationalistic politician interviewed in the story, has gained notoriety for his Russophobic remarks. Mr. Marson tells us that during the interview, Mr. Tyahnybok lamented the difficulties in finding Ukrainian-language publications in the capital.

"Go onto the street in Kyiv and try to buy a newspaper in Ukrainian," he told Marson. "You won't find one. Is this normal?"

Marson also related several other anecdotes on the language issue:

When a publisher tried to start a Ukrainian news magazine a couple of years ago, he gave up after a year saying that there was no interest in it. A friend of mine recently made a conscious decision to speak only Ukrainian to his friends, but then had to give up as his friends continued to speak Russian.
It is something that is made into a huge political issue (both within Ukraine and in relations between Russia and Ukraine), but is seen somewhat more philosophically among the population: At a recent birthday party, the host's son stood up and gave a speech in Ukrainian, immediately followed by a speech from his daughter in Russian. There were no complaints, in fact no one noticed - it was seen as normal.

Although we strive to be accurate and sensitive with our international coverage, we have no plans to go entirely "local" with our place names: Kyiv will not become Київ, Beijing will not be replaced by 北京; Cairo will not appear as القاهرة and our hometown will not be switched to Bahston.

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