Why Kiev is now Kyiv

Recently, the Associated Press and the New York Times changed the capital of Ukraine from “Kiev” to “Kyiv.”

How dare they?

Perhaps the better question to ask is, “What took them so long?”

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Kyiv is the latest place to be “renamed” by the West. What used to be Peking is Beijing; what used to be Ceylon is Sri Lanka; what used to be Madras is now Chennai. This name changing is a good thing when it recognizes that one civilization or culture does not have the sole authority to impose an identity on another. After all, “American Indians” were not “American Indians” until Europeans arrived.

More than 10 years ago, we wrote about the problems of transliteration, which rely on agreement on how the characters that make up native alphabets should be expressed in English. There’s rarely agreement. That’s why you will still see different spellings of words in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet.

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In the case of Peking/Beijing, the problem was transliteration, though the change was made on a more authoritative level than most. In the 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the government decided it needed to standardize the Romanization of Standard Chinese characters, the basis for Mandarin and some other Chinese languages. Even though the new system, called Pinyin, was formally adopted in China in 1958, it wasn’t until the International Organization for Standardization and the United Nations adopted Pinyin in the mid-1980s that the rest of the English-speaking world started using it in earnest. It took a while, but now “Mao Tse-Tung” looks funny.

The case of Sri Lanka, which used to be Ceylon, is tied to colonialism. The island off the coast of India had many names, including Sri Lanka, the Kingdom of Kotte, and the Kingdom of Sitawaka, until the Portuguese arrived in the late 16th century. They named the island Ceilão, which became Anglicized as Ceylon. (The Sinhalese natives maintained an interior stronghold.) The name Ceylon endured through Dutch and then British control until after World War II, when Britain granted it independent-domain status and the nation reclaimed its ancient name of Sri Lanka. But Ceylon stuck in most of the West until after Sri Lanka became the socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in the 1970s.

With Madras/Chennai, the explanation combines colonization and standardization. After India gained its independence in 1948, many areas began to reclaim their precolonial names. But even though most Indians are native English speakers, there was little standardized English spelling. So, for example: Rangiya v. Rangia. Many places retained their colonial names and their historical names. In 1996, a host of changes standardized names, switching Bombay to Mumbai, for example, even though it had always been Mumbai among Marathi speakers. Madras and Chennai were both names used for the city in precolonial times, but Madras prevailed until the local Tamil government reclaimed the name Chennai.

And what of Kiev? Of course, as the capital of Ukraine, it’s been in the news a lot lately. In the United States and much of the West, for many years we pronounced it “key-EV,” which is close to the way it is pronounced in Russian. (Kiev is Киев in Russian.) But remember, Ukraine had been under the domination of Russia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and many others before it became fully independent in 1991. It was then that many people started to recognize that Ukrainian is not Russian.

Kyiv, which may or may not have been founded by a prince named Kyi, is Київ in Ukrainian. The New York Times ran an article in November on the pronunciation, saying that “in the native Ukrainians stress the first vowel, and pronounce it like the ‘i’ in the word ‘kid’ or ‘lid.’ The second vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable, and sounds like the ‘ee’ sound in ‘keel.’ The v is also pronounced a bit differently, like the end of the word ‘low.’” (There’s a helpful recording for hearing it in the Times article.)

Shortly after that article appeared in the Times, the paper’s stylebook made the change to Kyiv. The AP switched in August. It’s what the Ukrainian government wants, and it’s good to respect their desire, even if it is almost 20 years after the fact. Other outlets still use Kiev; Wikipedia’s entry for “Kyiv,” for example, redirects to “Kiev.”

Many places, though, maintain their Anglicized names. Remember when the 2006 Winter Olympic Games were held in Turin? Or was it Torino? The logo said one thing; the English website said another. We have Florence, not Firenze; and Naples, not Napoli, among others where local names are translated, transliterated, or spelled differently outside the native language. 

Then there is the case of Mexico City. We’ve been calling it that for years, but that wasn’t its name, even in Spanish. It was legally Distrito Federal, or Federal District. But in 2016, in an attempt to enshrine the capital’s administrative role, similar to the District of Columbia’s, Mexican officials renamed it to Ciudad de México. That translates from the Spanish to, er, Mexico City, though it also likes the acronym CDMX.

Even though the names change, some things don’t. You can still have your Peking duck, your chicken Kiev, your Ceylon tea, and your Madras plaids. Those are idiomatic, associated with specific things, even if they no longer linguistically align with their birthplaces. As Shakespeare said:

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

[or a duck, a chicken, tea, or fabric]

“By any other name would smell as sweet.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.