Monday, June 04, 2012

Kiev or Kyiv: What name is 'in'?

For those championing the spelling 'Kyiv', Euro 2012 will have a mixed outcome. --- For some time there has been a big campaign amongst Ukrainian patriots and certain members of the diaspora to adopt the spelling 'Kyiv' as the English language name of Ukraine's capital. Now that Euro 2012 is finally upon us, this is perhaps the acid test of their efforts. Looking at the BBC venue guide for Euro 2012 above, it looks as if not everybody has been convinced. Doubtless there has been a flood of letters pointing this out, but no change has been made. To me, the map is correct. The names of both capital cities are spelled as they have been in English for a very long time. For the provincial cities however, the local names have been used. Nobody is trotting out 'Danzig' for Gdańsk or 'Breslau' for Wrocław. None of the many names that Lviv has previously been known by appear(Lvov, Lwów, Lemberg or even Leopolis) and Kharkiv takes its Ukrainian spelling rather than the Russian one Kharkov. Many publications have adopted the Kyiv spelling, most likely after activists' persistence, but some have resisted. The Financial Times, the New York Times and The Economist, for example, have retained the Kiev spelling. For Euro 2012, UEFA is going with the Kyiv spelling, whilst the BBC coverage is using Kiev. --- Spelling Kiev as 'Kyiv' is confusing 2 things-the correct transliteration of Ukrainian into the Roman alphabet, and what the correct name of the city should be in English. The Ukrainian name Київ (Kyiv) contains two sounds that don't even exist in the English language, and I can testify that correct pronunciation of Ky-iv takes quite a bit of practice for native speakers. Visiting fans to Euro 2012 are unlikely to get the hang of it during their short visit. It is common for English to use its own names for many of Europe's major cities. Kiev is a much more natural pronunciation for English speakers. If we followed the same logic elsewhere, Athens should be Afina, Moscow should be Moskva (or maybe even 'Maskva'), Belgrade Beograd etc., not to mention saying 'Paree' instead of Paris, and adopting München instead of Munich and Firenze instead of Florence. The demand for the Kyiv spelling is therefore not a consistent one. Why only Kyiv? Why not all these other places too? It has been Kiev in English for a very long time. Indeed, Chicken Kiev (to which this blog takes a bow) is a world-renowned dish and proof of how well-established the Kiev name is. The fact that a city is well-established and well-known abroad is surely no source of shame. --- The other inconsistency is that this effort seems to target only English. A quick google search for 'Kyiw' (the logical German variant) yielded no results, and French seems to have several versions, of which Kiev is the most prevalent. Ukrainian itself also doesn't have its own house in order here. Beijing is still Пекін (Pekin) in Ukrainian. Париж (Paryzh) would need to be ditched in favour of Пари. Most Ukrainian people make little effort to pronounce London as native speakers do (more 'on' than 'un'), and nor should they. If they are speaking their own language who am I to dictate? English speakers will always pronounce it 'Ki-ev' even if it's spelt Kyiv, and the exceptions will be those such as diplomatic staff who are coached on getting it right. --- My aim here is not to bash the Ukrainian language. In fact I very much support it, speak it here in Kiev (although not particularly well), and think that it should remain the only national language of Ukraine. Even if, at a very conservative estimate, only 20 million or so people speak Ukrainian as their first language, in European terms that's not small beer. That's more than speak, for example, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, or many of the official languages of the European Union. It's also a beautiful and poetic language that I have come to love. The push for 'Kyiv' in English though is a curious fetish. With the Ukrainian language under attack at home under various government policies and proposals, the leader of the opposition in prison, numerous police, human rights abuses and cases of corruption to highlight, aren't there more productive ways of helping Ukraine than writing ill-reasoned letters to the Sunday Times or whatever because a journalist dared write 'Kiev'. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns! --- The crux of the matter for some is the similarity between the English 'Kiev' and the Russian 'Киев'. However, that is rather a suspect motive for trying to change it. Calling the city Kiev in English is not pro-Russian and it's not anti-Ukrainian, it's just correct English. For comparison, calling Dublin by its English name rather than the Gaelic Baile Átha Cliath is not considered anti-Irish. People should not be labeled anti-Ukrainian just because they want to use English correctly. It has been cited that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked for it to be spelled Kyiv, so that should be that, but I don't accept that. The Ukrainian government's call to adopt the spelling 'Kyiv' in English was misguided. In my experience most Ukrainian politicians and civil servants don't even speak English, and are therefore ill-placed to make a judgement on English language usage. The MFA also insists on clumsy translations, so that every official Ukrainian state body has to be the xyz 'of Ukraine', so the Ukrainian MFA is, for example, 'The Ministry of Foreign Affairs OF Ukraine', and similar translations appear everywhere. The constant 'OF of OF' is incongruous in the English language. Ukraine has 'asked for' Kyiv, but in my view it's a somewhat curious thing to ask for. --- In the end if you argue that to protect your own language you need to dictate to native speakers of another language how they should use theirs, I think you're on pretty shaky ground. English is international, but its native speakers are still entitled to use the language as they so wish. One more cheeky point I could make is that, when one learns Ukrainian, there is an interesting twist to this tale in the Ukrainian case endings. Kiev is Kyiv in Ukrainian but 'in Kiev' is in fact 'в Києві' ('v Kievi') and 'in Lviv' becomes 'у Львові' (u Lvovi), so having gone to all this trouble to tell speakers of another language how to change their spelling, Ukrainian grammar, after all that, then changes it back! It looks for now as if the two variations will persist, as with Basel and Basle. But still, Ukraine has not yet perished and neither, for the time being, has Kiev. :)

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