Q: Ukraine is dominating the news right now, and its capital, when written, is spelled “Kyiv.” But at one time the common spelling was “Kiev.” Any idea why the new spelling and how it happened so quickly?
A: This didn’t happen overnight. The change from a Russian-influenced spelling (“Kiev”) to a Ukrainian one (“Kyiv”) had been in the works for decades, though it didn’t begin appearing in American news articles until 2019.
Ukraine had been pushing for the spelling change since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the country gained independence and declared Ukrainian its official state language. The government repudiated the use of “Kiev,” a Soviet-era spelling based on a Russian transliteration, in favor of “Kyiv,” the Ukrainian transliteration.
As you probably know, neither language, Ukrainian nor Russian, is written in the Latin alphabet that English uses. Both use Cyrillic scripts; the city’s name is Ки́їв in Ukrainian Cyrillic and Киев in Russian Cyrillic.
And the governments of Ukraine and Russia also have different ways of romanizing the name—that is, transliterating it into the Latin alphabet. It’s “Kyiv” in Ukraine, “Kiev” in Russia.
The difference seems small but it’s significant. Since English is the language of international diplomacy, the spelling that any particular country approves for government use—whether “Kiev,” “Kyiv, “Kiyev,” “Kyyiv,” or something else—is the one that appears in that country’s official correspondence with other governments. And the spelling matters for practical reasons too, as you’ll see.
Ukraine’s official adoption of the “Kyiv” spelling was made law in 1995. In 2006, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved “Kyiv” as the preferred spelling to be used within the federal government. The board said the change was requested by the U.S. State Department, which recommended “Kyiv” because it was the romanized spelling used in Ukraine.
But though the Board on Geographic Names officially approved “Kyiv” in 2006, it also allowed the conventional spelling “Kiev” as an alternative. That later changed.
On June 11, 2019, the board voted to disallow “Kiev,” announcing that “Kyiv” was “now the only name available for standard use within the United States (U.S.) Government.” Again, the board said it made the change on the recommendation of the State Department.
The panel added that its action would affect usage “inside and outside the United States, in particular on international flights and in airports around the world.”
It went on to say that “many international organizations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), refer specifically to official names in the database of the United States Board on Geographic Names.”
Later that same year, news organizations in the US and the UK began changing the way they spelled the name. As far as we can tell, The Associated Press was first to make the change, in August 2019, with NPR and the BBC, along with major American and British newspapers, soon to follow.
At the The New York Times, the change to “Kyiv” became effective in articles published after Nov. 18, 2019. The paper explained at the time that the policy reflected “the transliteration from Ukrainian, rather than Russian.”
Today the “Kyiv” spelling has become almost universal throughout Western news organizations. Most recent to adopt it is the French state-owned news agency Agence France-Presse in January 2022.
Now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pronunciation of “Kyiv” has been getting attention. The actual Ukrainian pronunciation, as heard in this YouTube video, eludes many westerners. It sounds more like KEEV than key-EV, according to a recent article in The Times.
As for the name itself, it’s thought to come from “Kyi,” a personal name. The city, according to legend, was founded in the sixth century by a group of siblings and named for the oldest brother, Kyi. But that may be a folk etymology.