The Russia-Ukraine conflict has captured the world’s attention as the situation escalates, but for those unfamiliar with Ukraine, there may be some confusion around the name of its capital city, Kyiv.
If you have been listening to or watching the news, you may have noticed that reporters pronounce the name of the eastern European city in two different ways: Kyiv (KEEV) and Kiev (Key-EV). These two pronunciations of the city’s name are rooted in history.
How Kiev became Kyiv
“It’s just about which language you transliterate from,” says Jane Lytvynenko, a senior research fellow at Harvard from Ukraine. “Kiev is from Russian, Kyiv is from Ukrainian.”
The continued use of Kiev by some media outlets dates back to when Kyiv was a part of the Soviet Union. After Ukraine secured its independence in 1991, the Ukrainian government began pushing for the use of Kyiv as the official Ukrainian transcription of the city’s name.
“‘Keev’ is about as close as we can gracefully get in English to the actual pronunciation, which is roughly ‘KOUGH-ihv,’ where the OUGH rhymes with the OO in FOOT, or the U in PUT,” linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter told Quartz. “‘KEE-eff’ is the Russian pronunciation, which, for obvious reasons, is now being reassessed as the Anglophone norm.”
The politics of the name
“It is a touchy subject because Putin has used Russian speakers in Ukraine to deny Ukraine’s sovereignty,” says Russia and Ukraine historian Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon.
“In 2019, Ukraine passed a law making Ukrainian the official language of the Ukrainian state and public communications. However, this does not mean Russian is outlawed, and many Ukrainians speak both languages. Thus, pronunciation of the English transliteration is important because one is the Russian name for the city and the other is the Ukrainian name.”
The country’s affirmation of its capital city’s name, as well as its recently ratified (pdf) state language, are meant to serve as signals to the international community that Ukraine is not an appendage of Russia, but its own sovereign state.