The Ukrainian Capital Name Issue - Kiev or Kyiv?

The Ukrainian Capital Name Issue - Kiev or Kyiv?

November 8, 2019

Kiev, or Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Ukraine flag

An independent nation has naming rights over its cities, free to determine official names and specify the spelling of each place name in as many languages as it chooses.

Whether that name gets used in other languages is where things can get a little bit tricky. When an unapproved name translation is used internationally, for an extended period of time, then mapmakers, airlines, encyclopedias, and the entire international community begin to accept it as standard and correct.

That's what's happening with Ukraine’s capital, and it's got a lot of Ukrainians upset. "Kyiv" and "Kiev" are the two most common spellings for the name of the country's capital. While Ukrainians feel very strongly that the name should, officially, be "Kyiv," the long-standing usage of "Kiev" around the world has squelched Ukraine's efforts to change how the city's name is spelled. It's a stalemate that's been going on for a while but may be broken very soon.

Recently, the United States Board on Geographic Names (USGS), responding to an appeal from the Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, replaced "Kiev" with "Kyiv", as the correct spelling for that city's name.

To some extent, as the USGS goes, so goes the world. Numerous global organizations, like the International Air Transport Association (IATA), typically use place names from the USGS database. It probably won't be long before your boarding pass for a flight to Ukraine’s capital will read “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev.”

Why does the spelling matter so much to Ukrainians?

Ukraine names its places using translations from Cyrillic into Latin and then into the Ukrainian language. “Kyiv” is a Latin version of the city’s name, translated into Ukrainian. The spelling, “Kiev,” on the other hand, is a romanization of the Russian name for the city. It became very common internationally in the 20th century.

That's a sore spot for Ukrainians because it recalls the days when the Russian Empire, and, later, the Soviet State, banned the use of the Ukrainian language. It was an attempt to strengthen Russian influence in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have never really gotten over it.

Ever since it became an independent state in 1991, Ukraine has campaigned for the use of Ukrainian versions of their place names when they are referred to in English and other languages. Specifically, in 2007, the campaign to encourage international media to switch from “Kiev” to “Kyiv” really ramped up.

But English speakers are used to "Kiev," and most major news organizations have continued to use that spelling.

There's a solid argument for the conventional spelling. “Kiev” is what's known as an exonym—an external name for a geographic place. For example, in English, we use “Germany” to refer to what the Germans call Deutschland, whereas, the French use the word "Allemagne."

The UN, and the international community in general, tend to honor a country's right to names its places. In fact, countries are allowed to determine their official place names in any language. Politics, historical factors, and translation issues get in the way though, and sometimes, a place's most common name in a given language is not the one specified by the country's government.

The Ukrainian capital is not the only place that's had an unwanted exonym take over as the most common way to reference it. Sometimes it can happen to a whole country. The Czech Republic's official name in English is Czechia, published as such in United Nations documentation since 2016. Nevertheless, the name "Czech Republic" is still very common in English, and forms of it are used in other languages.

At Seterra, we're careful to use official names of places, and we strive to get it right in English, Ukrainian, Czech, and all the other 32 languages we support. For that reason, in English, we use "Czechia" instead of "Czech Republic". Since November 2019, we are now using “Kyiv“ in all our English language quizzes.

"I love Kyiv", a sign on the Independence Square.