What’s the correct way for U.S. journalists to call a foreign city — by its English name if it has one, like Rome, Damascus or Mexico City, or by its name in the local language?
It’s a question American news organizations constantly grapple with — and the way they respond often draws on the history and wishes of the local population as well as the roots of the anglicized name.
This week, NPR decided to officially adapt on-the-air pronunciation of Kyiv, the capital formerly spelled Kiev, to sound closer to the way it’s said in Ukrainian. NPR already changed the spelling to Kyiv in 2019.
All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly — on her way Monday to Kyiv to report on the threat of a Russian invasion — tweeted about both decisions.
“For those asking, @npr goes with Ukrainian spelling & pronunciation (not Russian) wherever possible when reporting on Ukraine. Kyiv not Kiev. KEE-eve not KEE-yev.”
“Kiev” comes from Russian, and Ukraine has been campaigning for the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation since the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to invade Crimea and other parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, many Western news outlets started complying.
Even before this week’s decision on pronunciation, some NPR hosts and reporters were already saying Kyiv of their own accord, generating a debate online about whether all cities should be pronounced in the vernacular, and recalling a 2019 congressional hearing where some lawmakers used yet another pronunciation of the city’s name, which turned it into one syllable.
“Now that everyone’s saying ‘Keev,’ is ‘Paree’ far behind?” Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal asked Monday on Twitter, invoking the French pronunciation for Paris.
Now that everyone’s saying ‘Keev,’ is ‘Paree’ far behind?
— Kai Ryssdal (@kairyssdal) January 21, 2022
Pronunciation is tied up in geopolitics and identity
While it’s easy to make light of a debate about nomenclature, for the people involved it’s often a serious matter that is entwined with identity, geopolitics and national security.
Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center and former Ukrainian Foreign Ministry communications adviser, recalls that many years ago the definite article in “The Ukraine” was dropped because that formulation is connected to Russian nationalism.
“How we describe Ukraine and Ukrainians and their cities is paramount to how the world perceives Ukraine,” says Jankowicz, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2019 about the pronunciation debate and made a video too.
“And part of that perception,” she says, “is about you describing Ukraine as its own distinct entity, not as a part of this alleged sphere of influence that Vladimir Putin wants to resurrect, in which all Slavic countries are part of a giant brotherhood and he is the king of them.”
The debate about mimicking the vernacular is more intense in English than in other tongues, because of its current status as a global language.
Vitaly Chernetsky, a Ukrainian-born professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, says most Ukrainians don’t mind that Polish has its own names for cities in neighboring countries — including Kyiv, which Poland ruled in the 16th century and which Poles still spell Kijów.
“We’re not telling Polish people that they should stop doing it that way in their language because it’s much more of a complicated and tangled history,” he explains.
While it may seem difficult for people who are not familiar with Slavic languages to get the exact pronunciation of Kyiv, Chernetsky says they can come pretty close because in Ukrainian the “K” and the “V” are pronounced similarly as in English.
He says old spellings and pronunciations are still okay when talking about food.
“Just like we can still say Peking duck, it’s okay to say chicken Kiev.”
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