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Kyiv, not Kiev: why you should double-check transliterations of post-USSR geographical names

By Maria Kardash

As an Eastern European studying abroad during the last two years, I’ve got an impression that the post-soviet space (including my home country, Ukraine) and its linguistic complexities, in particular, are still pretty much a terra incognita (a Latin term historically used in cartography for marking the unknown lands) for a wider community. With the following article, I want to start a series of sketches exploring how language choices determine the modern faces of countries that once cohabited the big communal apartment called the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian independence was born in the same year as me, 1991. When I was a kid, I never really questioned why everyone around me was using Russian in a state called Ukraine. I was growing up in the most multinational Ukrainian region, Bessarabia, where the Russian language served as a bridge between different ethnicities. I’ve been talking Russian within my mixed family (although I’m half-Ukrainian, half-Moldovan), talking Russian in school and even having all my school subjects taught in Russian, except for about four hours of the Ukrainian language and literature each a week.

Only in high school did some teachers switch to Ukrainian explaining that “you gonna need it in the Uni”. And still, that initiative met some resistance among my classmates wondering “How do you even learn Math in Ukrainian?” Although most of the teachers kept using Russian in their classes, for the first time I realized a big thing: Russian was not the universal tool anymore. You really need to learn your state language, darling.

Ok, so school’s done, Uni begins. I left my hometown and moved to the North of the country to study in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. There I was struck by two things:

a. The Ukrainian language doesn’t only exist in textbooks.

b. People use it in their daily life.

Several years later, a bunch of Hungarian students came for cultural exchange to our Uni. With my friend, I’d been dragging them around Kyiv for three days. Then one of them suddenly told us: “guys, I’ve been listening to you speaking and I think Ukrainian sounds quite similar to Russian”. Me and my friend, both Ukrainians, looked at each other feeling slightly ashamed, then revealed the ugly truth to this dude: “You know… we’ve been actually speaking Russian all this time”. And all the Hungarian group started asking questions like “Oh are you serious? But why?”, so we had to explain all the historical and political implications.

I admit these situations may seem weird or even ignorant to you, but that’s the linguistic realities in my country. Some regions managed to preserve Ukrainian as a language of everyday usage during the USSR times and happily ditched Russian as soon as independence arrived. However, other places experienced (and sadly, still experience) a huge problem with acknowledging Ukrainian as a state language. Decades of russification quite affected us as a nation, so that we don’t even realize that and keep using Russian in our personal lives. The geographical remoteness of some regions is also making the overall transition to Ukrainian more difficult. This is the case of my birthplace: Bessarabia is stuck between Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea. When I show my non-Ukrainian friends where my hometown is located on a map, they are usually very surprised: “Oh, is that still Ukraine? I thought it’s already some other land”.

Nevertheless, every next generation is getting more and more ‘Ukrainized’ as the status of the Ukrainian language is restored within the country and around the world. That’s why we may seem too sensitive and passionate about the choices the worldwide community makes when spelling our geographical names. Most of them arrived in the English language from the form used by the USSR or even the Russian Empire and thus traditionally had Russian spelling. However, for Ukraine and other post-soviet states it is important to be represented on the international agenda not through the lens of the colonial past but with their own definitions. Our story is not unique: remember Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta? I can assure you, using the old form Kiev anywhere on the web can raise a similar amount of heat in the comments.

‘KyivnotKiev’ is probably the most well-known Ukrainian campaign, aimed to change the Soviet-era spelling of the Ukrainian capital – Kiev – to Kyiv, a form deriving from the Ukrainian language. Although an official transliteration of Ukrainian geographical names into the Latin alphabet was introduced in 1995, it wasn’t widely adopted until 2018, when the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the online campaigns #KyivnotKiev and #CorrectUa, which were aimed to correct the misspelled names.

These initiatives gained popularity among social media users, who massively engaged in tagging big international media companies and calling for action when spotting the usage of the wrong name’s version. It appeared to be quite effective: the BBC, CNN, Euronews, The Guardian, and other media giants, airports and airlines adopted the new spelling. Even the media outlets which previously made a statement about sticking to established spelling eventually changed their mind and adopted Kyiv (see The Calvert Journal in the sources). Huh, while I’m writing this article the autocorrection highlights Kiev with the annoying red line and proposes to replace it with Kyiv. Win-win!

Not only Kyiv, but many other Ukrainian toponyms were incorporated in the international communication from the Russian language. Now the worldwide community is making an effort to abandon the old forms: Lvov for Lviv, Odessa for Odesa, Kharkov for Kharkiv, Chernobyl for Chornobyl and so on. Wait, you may ask, is that all fuss about replacing one or two letters? Yes. What may seem a minor difference, in fact, for us is a huge step in a nation-building process and establishing a new politico-cultural narrative. So, if you ever need to use some Ukrainian or any other post-USSR toponym and find yourself confused about how it is spelled, I’m really encouraging you to double-check which version is preferred within that state.

1 Comment

  1. Alice Smeathers

    I thoroughly enjoy your emails about Linguistics. I took one course of Linguistics at Carleton Univ in Ottawa, Ont. Can. It was hard but it fascinated me. I was a primary school teacher and concerned with proper English. I still like the proper way of speaking.
    My one helpful, I hope, comment is, in the paragraph about the student exchanges you said ‘Me and my friend”. I was taught to put the other person first, My friend and I. No one would say…me looked…always, as a help, separate the pronouns to hear how they sound. Keep up the good work. :-))

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