Since the start of this latest world crisis, I’ve wondered why the city which has been known as Kiev for ages has suddenly become Kyiv. Kiev has disappeared from most online world maps including Google Maps and in its place we now see Kyiv. Newspaper reports and TV bulletins now refer to Kyiv (although many still seem to pronounce it Kiev).
The explanation is quite simple and straightforward.
Do you remember when we were growing up the capital of China was Peking? Then it gradually changed to Beijing. Peking was the name given to the city by French missionaries in the 17th/18th centuries; it was an approximation of the sound of the Chinese characters. In 1958, the Chinese government decided on pinyin as the preferred transliteration of the Chinese language as it was closer to Mandarin. Thus Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong. But it was not until 1979 that the Chinese government insisted on Beijing as the rightful name of that capital. It then took a while for this to be accepted around the world.
While it’s not exactly the same, the Kiev-Kyiv change is similarly related to the transliteration (not translation) from one alphabet to another. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet as does Ukrainian, Serbian, Bulgarian and several other countries in that region (although there are differences in the Cyrillic alphabet used just as there are in the Roman/Latin alphabet which we use). For Ukrainians, the capital of their country is Київ – this is in Ukrainian Cyrillic and transliterates into Roman script as Kyiv. However, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for many years where Russian was the dominant language; in Russian, the word is Киев and this transliterates to Kiev.
Now normally nobody would be terribly concerned about this. After all, exonyms are pretty common and we use a version of foreign names in our own language. We call the capital of Russia Moscow not Moskva; Deutschland is called ‘Germany’ in English, ‘Allemagne’ in French and ‘Niemcy’ in Polish.
Four years ago, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a campaign KyivNotKiev to try to persuade foreign media to use Kyiv not Kiev but they had rather limited success. However, with the Russian invasion, most media have now decided to drop the Russian transliteration in favour of the Ukrainian version to show support for Ukraine. And there we have it.
By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce, Kyiv, it’s KEE-ef. It’s almost one syllable. Indeed if you just say Keef, you’re pretty close.