Ukraine’s Capital Gets a Linguistic Facelift

Kiev is now Kyiv, at least according to the US State Department and western Ukrainians are concerned. Kyiv has long been the spelling of Ukraine’s capital for many but for Russian speaking Ukrainians living on the eastern side of the country in particular, the Russian spelling Kiev is correct. About half of Ukraine’s 4.7 million citizens are Russian speakers.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko has sought to gain membership into NATO and the European Union. But does this linguistic facelift, long a point of debate among Ukrainians, have anything to do with Yushchenko’s pro-western political tendencies? Not according to the US State Department. A US Board of Geographic Names of which the State Department is a member establishes uniform name usage for the federal government. Kyiv is now the official spelling for all State Department communications.

The politics of naming has a history. Holland has long been recognized as the Netherlands. Myanamar was once Burma. A host of African countries have changed their names since independence, including Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, and Zaire, previously recognized as the colonial Belgian Congo.

The Associated Press is not jumping on the latest linguistic bandwagon, however, choosing to stay with the familiar spelling of Kiev. AP’s decision prompted mild outrage by a Chechen independent international Islamic Internet news agency based in Turkey. APs refusal to convert its spelling of Ukraine’s capital was a clear indication of the agency’s lack of objectivity according to the Turkish news agency website. Apart from the Turkish news agency’s outburst, the Ukrainian capital’s change sparked little conversation in the broader international media. Still, a Kansas newspaper did raise the question of whether the spelling of Chicken Kiev would now be known as Chicken Kyiv, begging the question of whether food outranks geography!