As the unpleasantness in Ukraine continues, and Russophobes celebrate (finally) a defensible reason to hate Russians, chin-stroking pundits are flocking to the ranks of those “correctly” spelling, and pronouncing, the name of the Ukrainian capital.

Get with the program, dear reader: It’s now “Kyiv,” not “Kiev,” and it’s pronounced “Keev,” not “Kee-ev.”

This shift is motivated more by political/nationalist factors than linguistic ones and was kicked off by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2018. That KyivNotKiev lobbying campaign (and even less so, the broader CorrectUA effort) didn’t get much traction at first, but of course is all the rage now.

Leaving aside how those now calling for Ukraine to be treated with “respect” by embracing this movement are not advocating the same privilege for, say, Wien, Warszawa, Brussel/Bruxelles or Gay Paree, an examination of how this sort of thing happens is more interesting, and important, than the Kiev/Kyiv phenomenon itself.

Putting language in its place

The usage of place names evokes strong emotions all over the world, especially in such countries as India and those in much of the African continent that have shaken off the shackles of European colonialism. 

Sometimes the reformation of a place name is quite substantial, as in Chennai replacing Madras, but usually they simply represent corrections of colonialist mispronunciations (Kolkata/Calcutta, Bengalaru/Bangalore, Ganga/Ganges, even Mumbai/Bombay). 

In rare cases, local speakers simply tolerate the internationally accepted names of their cities, while keeping the “real” name for themselves, as with Bangkok (the Thai name is กรุงเทพ, usually romanized as Krung Thep). 

In yet other cases, the name of an entire country can vary according to the policy of different foreign authorities; Myanmar, officially renamed thus by a widely despised military regime in 1989 and accepted as such by the United Nations, is still officially called Burma by the United States and some others.

Making it even harder to stay “correct” is the way namesakes fall out of (Leningrad, Stalingrad) or into (Ho Chi Minh City) favor.

For speakers of languages foreign to the countries in question, striving for “correct” spellings and, much more, pronunciations is often a fool’s errand. 

Many major languages use phonetic elements alien to many other major languages; the bilabial fricative common to most Spanish dialects is unknown in English and usually pronounced “b” or “v”, and the tenuis consonants of some Asian tongues such as Thai (ด, บ) elude most anglophones.

And let’s not get started on the guttural consonants of Arabic.

Yes, but what about Kiev/Kyiv?

The Slavic language group to which Russian and Ukrainian belong is a member of the Indo-European family to which English also belongs, so theoretically, competency therein should not present as much of a challenge as most Asian tongues.

Still, there are phonetic differences that can be as difficult to comprehend as the nuances of Russian and Ukrainian politics and the complexities of their histories.

These challenges are aggravated by the fact that most Slavic languages, including these two, don’t use the Roman alphabet. They use Cyrillic, a system that resembles Roman in some ways but has more variations according to which language is using it.

In the case of Kiev/Kyiv, Russians spell it Киев and Ukrainians Київ. Spelling is one thing, but pronunciation is a whole other Pandora’s box for politically correct talking heads.

Neither diphthong has a precise equivalent in English, before you even consider dialectal variations in all three languages (what’s the “correct” way to say the English word “base”? Depends if you ask someone from Manchester, Melbourne or Montgomery, Alabama).

So, which spelling and pronunciation of the Ukrainian capital should you use? 

If you get into an argument about it, it might be an idea to ask your interlocutor how he or she refers to Москва. And whether he or she does so with a civil and tolerant tone, or one tainted by bigotry and belligerence.

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.