Why we're still chicken on 'Kyiv'

The dramatic events in Ukraine have been unfolding remarkably peacefully so far, praise be. But the good ship Monitor has taken a few shots across the bow from readers unhappy with our spelling of the name of the country's capital. We write it "Kiev"; some of our Ukrainian-Canadian readers want to see "Kyiv." What's all this about?

Kiev, these readers note, is the Russian name for the city; Kyiv, they insist, is the "correct" Ukrainian spelling.

Well, wait a minute, folks. There's spelling, and there's transliteration.

The difference between Stephen and Steven, or Sara and Sarah, is one of spelling. But rendering a Chinese or an

Arabic name, for instance, into English, involves transliteration - literally "cross-lettering." One has to decide how to represent the different sounds of the foreign language using letters of the Roman, or Latin, alphabet, which English uses.

Russian and Ukrainian both use Cyrillic rather than Roman letters. The languages are similar but distinct, and the Ukrainians, in particular, are eager to keep reminding us of the distinctions. A new system for Romanizing Ukrainian was introduced in 1996, and that's where we get Kyiv.

Is it time for a change? It's a question news organizations are continually asking themselves about countries going through major upheavals.

At some level the question is, "How is this place known in the English-speaking world?" After all, we say "Munich," not "München," and "Milan," not "Milano" - and "Moscow," for that matter, rather than "Moskva." "Kiev" still represents the mainstream, if perhaps not the forward edge. Yes, it's a transliteration of the Russian name. But if that's how it's known, why not call it that?

A newspaper sometimes has to balance political correctness with terms that will have some meaning for the readers it is trying to reach. If the one thing that a vast swath of readers know about Ukraine is that there's a fancy chicken dish named for its capital, do we really want to insist on Kyiv and lose them completely?

But here's the zinger: If you're trying to mimic the way actual Ukrainians pronounce the name of their capital, the 1996 transliteration isn't much help. English spelling is seldom a reliable pronunciation guide. Both "i" and "y" can represent "short" and "long" sounds. But what neither letter naturally represents to English speakers is the actual Ukrainian sound, a so-called middle vowel that simply doesn't exist in English.

I called up a professor of Slavic studies I know in Ottawa and asked hopefully, "Isn't that sound fairly close to the 'o' with an umlaut of German?"

"Right street, wrong house," he replied.

What the "y" in Kyiv does approximate pretty well is the letter of the International Phonetic Alphabet used to represent its counterpart in Ukrainian, a letter looking like a backward capital N. (Are you still with me?)

It's interesting that the Ukrainian community in Canada seems to be among those leading the charge to adopt the 1996 Romanization in the English-language press. I can't help thinking that multicultural, officially bilingual Canadians know a thing or two about the role of spelling in the politics of identity. They have, after all, a few "favourite" spelling tricks to distinguish themselves from a powerful "neighbour" next door, whom they have to keep chequing, er, checking, up on.

But here's one well-meaning editor's plea: Dear Ukrainians, please don't make it hard for us to tell your story.

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