Ukraine and the politics of transliteration

'Kiev' still makes sense as the way to refer to the troubled capital, but that may change.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainians sing the national anthem during a rally in the Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March 9, 2014.

Now that Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, a question that has been on the sidelines up to now becomes more pointed: Shall we refer to the capital city of this country in turmoil as Kiev – or Kyiv?

That's a no-brainer, some advocates say. In 1995, an official Ukrainian commission, "proceeding from the urgent need to standardize the recreation of Ukrainian proper names through Roman letters in the context of Ukraine's integration into the world legal realm," came down on the side of "Kyiv" as "the standardized Roman-letter spelling ... for use in legislative and official acts." This came four years after the world was asked to stop calling the country "the Ukraine."

Both the US State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office have concurred on "Kyiv," adopting this spelling in their written references to the Ukrainian capital – even, alas, as they warn their respective citizens away from traveling there.

But "Kiev" remains the standard usage among the overwhelming majority of English-language news organizations.

The argument against "Kiev" is that "it's the Russian name for the city." But let's take a step or two back first.

Russian and Ukrainian are two closely related but distinct languages. Each has its own alphabet, based on Cyrillic letters, adapted from Greek. So the question of Kiev versus Kyiv is not one just of spelling but of transliteration.

The Roman alphabet has been "customized" for a wide range of languages over the centuries with the use of accent marks of various kinds. Cyrillic alphabets, on the other hand, have been "customized" by the creation of entirely new letter shapes.

In Russian, "Kiev" is spelled as a four-letter word, with letters corresponding roughly to the "k" of king, the "i" of machine, the "e" of get (albeit a bit weakened, because it's an unstressed syllable), and the "v" of victory. "Kiev" is a pretty good transliteration of a name that isn't that hard for English speakers to approximate.

In Ukrainian, the name of the capital is spelled with a letter that doesn't exist in Russian. Instead of the "e," the third sound of the name is a letter that looks like an "i" with an umlaut. It represents a vowel sound that doesn't exist in English. And the final consonant, represented by a letter that looks like a "b," seems to disappear in pronunciation. In other words, the Ukrainian form of the name is much harder for the ears of English speakers to catch than the Russian form. One needn't be a fan of Vladimir Putin to say that.

Then there's the question whether "Kyiv" is the best transliteration of the Ukrainian name. Some of the forms used in earlier centuries, Kiou, Kiow, or Kiew, might get English speakers closer to the Ukrainian pronunciation without taking them too far out of their phonetic comfort zone.

It may sound culturally imperialistic to say so, but "How is this place known in English?" is still a valid criterion for editors making style decisions. And the capital of Ukraine is known broadly in the English-speaking world as "Kiev."

But things change. And things have certainly changed in Crimea.

English-language media may adopt the spelling "Kyiv" but retain the current pronunciation – which seems to be what the State Department and Foreign Office are doing. Sometimes a name or even a pronunciation becomes just too fraught, and something has to give.

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