Now that Ukraine is in the news everyday, the question of how to write the capital of the country in English has come up. So is it Kyiv or Kiev?
The Old East Slavic language and Kievan Rus are the predecessors of the modern Ukrainian language and state in much the same way that Chaucer’s Middle English and Norman England evolved into the contemporary English language and nationhood.
The original English version of the city comes from its Old East Slavic name, which in English orthography would have been Kiev. The shifting vowel sounds that give us modern Kyiv are relatively recent in Ukrainian.
The pronunciation and written form of the first vowel (the y in Kyiv) is a feature of modern Ukrainian that distinguishes it from neighboring languages. It’s not possible to combine k with y in Russian, Belarusian or Polish. It’s a moot point for English though, as we don’t have the y sound at all.
The second vowel (the i in Kyiv) is actually an e depending on where the word falls in a sentence in modern Ukrainian.
Київ столица України.
Kyiv (pronounced and written Kyiv) is the capital of Ukraine.
Їдемо до Києва.
We’re going to Kyiv (pronounce and written Kyev).
Every language has vowel shifts over time. For English speakers, this is especially obvious if you see Shakespeare performed with original pronunciation. English uses etymology rather than pronunciation for spelling, hence Kiev is a perfectly reasonable way to spell the name of the Ukrainian capital in English.
While I’m sympathetic towards those who write Kyiv, and do so myself in most cases, I have no common cause with changing the standard English pronunciation. When I say [kee-yev] every English speaker knows exactly what I’m talking about.
There is no English equivalent to the Ukrainian и sound, and attempting to use it in English only creates confusion. Most English speakers end up pronouncing Kyiv as [keev], which is, ironically, closer to the Russian pronunciation than the Ukrainian.
The problem with Kiev
Given that Kiev makes sense both for pronunciation and etymology, that should cased closed. Alas, it’s not.
Kiev is precisely how modern Russian spells the capital of Ukraine. This leads to the unfortunate feeling that English gets the name of Ukrainian capital, which predates the existence of Russia, via the Russian language.
Given the political situation, I can see why most Ukrainians prefer Kyiv. It would make sense to use your own country’s transliteration of its capital rather than the transliteration of a country that happens to be at war with Ukraine.
That’s it. There’s really no other argument for not using Kiev in English. There are hundreds of place names in English that don’t match their native form. Some are completely different (i.e. Armenia instead of Hayastan, India instead of Bharat); others are phonetic adaptations (i.e. Italy instead of Italia).
My compromise is to use Kyiv for written English and [kee-yev] for spoken. I’ve never run into misunderstandings with this, and it still respects the wishes of most Ukrainians.
Kyiv and Kiev in a pluricentric language
The English name of for the capital of Ukraine has historically been Kiev.
The fact that there are two competing forms isn’t much of an issue to English speakers. We’re used to regional variations and allow a wide range within what’s accepted as “standard English.” Beyond that, there is not body like the Académie française without the anglo-sphere. Even if such a thing were to exist on a national level, why would New Zealanders care what some stodgy language bureaucrat in Washington thinks?
This is a pluricentric language in action. It could easily take a hundred or more years, but Kyiv or Kiev will come to dominate. Or not. We can live with aubergines and eggplants.
Long before people were whining about virtue signaling on the internet, Dietrich Bonhoeffer about the illusion of cheap grace in Christian discipleship. Of course, it’s easy to give lip service to Christianity’s lofty ideals. That’s cheap grace. It’s an entirely different matter to pay for those ideals with your life as Bonhoeffer himself did.
Clamoring about using Kyiv instead of Kiev in online discussions is cheap patriotism.
Walk down the streets of Kyiv and the overwhelming majority of conversations are in Russian. While I’m happy to use Kyiv, I find it odd that the work of supposed derussification falls on anglophones while the actual residents of Kyiv are fine yammering away in Russian.