As our readers doubtless know, I’m appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and wish the Ukrainians the best. But on one matter I don’t go along with what at least some Ukraine supporters argue: That we need to switch from “Kiev” to “Kyiv,” and from saying “the Ukraine” to “Ukraine.” If people want to do it, to show support for the Ukrainians or for some other reason, that’s fine. But I don’t think there’s any obligation to do so, as a matter of linguistic rules or of good manners.
Likewise, the government of Turkey can certainly ask the UN to call the country “Türkiye,” as it has recently done, and I can see why it might dislike the association with the bird, or with the figurative meaning “flop.” But whatever the UN may choose to do for diplomatic reasons, I don’t think any of us have an obligation to go along.
[1.] Let’s start with the capital of Ukraine. We can say three things about it:
- In Russian, it’s pronounced more or less “Kiev” (“Kee-ehv”), and written in a way that would normally be transliterated “Kiev” in English.
- In Ukrainian, it’s pronounced more or less “Kyiv” (with the “y” sounding like the “y” in “crypt,” though further back in the mouth), and written in a way that would normally be transliterated “Kyiv” in English.
- But in English, it has historically been pronounced more or less “Kiev,” and written “Kiev,” doubtless because it was borrowed into English from Russian.
After all, in English we have our own names for many foreign places. We write and say “Moscow” and not “Moskva,” “Russia” and not “Rossiya,” “Ukraine” and not “Ookraina,” “Florence” and not “Firenze,” “Spain” and not “España.” Indeed, sometimes our names are far indeed from the original: “Germany” and not “Deutschland,” “Albania” and not “Shqiperia,” “Georgia” and not “Sakartvelo.”
To be sure, I’ve heard the argument that we should call countries and cities what their inhabitants prefer. But that’s just not the way languages generally work. As with other English words, English words for foreign places have their own history. They were often adopted through other languages, or adopted in times when transliteration conventions were somewhat different, or for that matter adopted as a result of mispronunciation that has become the correct English pronunciation.
And of course there’s nothing unusually imperialistic or self-centered about English in this respect. Russian, Ukrainian, French, Spanish, Mandarin, and other languages operate precisely the same way: They too have their own names for cities and countries where English is spoken. (In Ukrainian, for instance, England is “Anglia,” and Deutschland is “Nimechyna.”) Ukrainians are entitled to use whatever words they want in Ukrainian. to refer to England. Likewise, I don’t think we need to change the way we label Ukraine or Kiev in English.
To be sure, sometimes the customary names of foreign places have changed in English (e.g., Peking/Beijing, Ceylon/Sri Lanka). Over time, people may come around to adapting the new terms, not because they should feel morally obligated to but because they want to, or because they find it more useful for commercial or other reasons. Some of those changes, though, aren’t even enthusiastically endorsed by all the people who reside in those places (cf. Bombay/Mumbai, Burma/Myanmar). And the norm in English generally remains: We have our own names for foreign places, just as foreign language speakers have their own names for our places.
[2.] I’d say the same about Turkey, which is the English name for the country that calls itself “Türkiye”—just as “İngiltere” is apparently the Turkish name for the country that calls itself “England.” I don’t think anyone should expect the Turks to change to saying England; why should we expect English speakers to change to saying “Türkiye”? (Greece, by the way, is apparently “Yunanistan” in Turkish, and “Ellada” or “Ellas” in Greek; again, I don’t think either Turkish or English or Greek speakers need to change how they pronounce things.)
And accepting a request such as this (whether as to Kiev or Turkey) as creating an obligation on us is likely, I think, to cause more upset rather than less. People are creatures of habit when it comes to language. People who were raised saying one thing will have a hard time changing. They might resent having to change, or might just speak without remembering the latest demands that they’ve heard. (Speaking based on habit is what fluency in a language is all about.)
Lots of people will thus stick with the traditional pronunciation—but adopting the norm that English speakers should change their pronunciation will likely lead people to become offended when the norm is not adhered to. Better, it seems to me, to just accept linguistic traditions, and recognize that they stem not from the speakers’ hostility or a desire to offend but just from linguistic history, than to insist on changes that are likely not to be consistently forthcoming.
That is especially so when the list of proposed changes grows, as others make similar demands. More broadly, I think people should respect each language community’s right to choose its own words, including its own words for foreign places.
[3.] On to the “The”: It used to be customary for the country to be labeled “the Ukraine,” though many are changing to “Ukraine.” Again, if people want to change, that’s fine. (I confess that I’ve shifted this way myself, not out of any sense of obligation, but as a voluntary tip of the hat to the Ukrainians’ gallantry.) But the argument that “the Ukraine” is wrong because it somehow denies Ukraine’s nationhood strikes me as quite wrong.
To begin with, the common name for the country we live in is … the United States. One of our closest allies is usually called the UK (when it’s not generically called England, despite its inclusion of places other than England proper). Back in the day, three of the five Security Council members had a “the” in their common names in English (the United States, the UK, and the Soviet Union). We also generally speak about the Netherlands, the Philippines, the Maldives, and (when we speak about it at all) the Gambia. And of course most countries have “the” in their long English names, such as the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of France, and the Russian Federation.
Now to be sure, these name have something in common; I think it’s that, in English, “the” is usually used to refer to common nouns, and those names have common nouns embedded in their names, either expressly or historically and implicitly: States, Kingdom, Union, Republic, Lands (in “Netherlands”), Islands (implied as to the Philippines and the Maldives), and likely River (as to the Gambia). Likely “the Ukraine” stems from some English speakers’ knowledge (now lost to most English speakers) that “krai” in “Ukraine” means, more or less, “border.”
But whatever one might say about these etymologies, they in no way deny the nationhood of any such country today. No-one thinks that saying “the Netherlands” or “the Philippines” or “the United States” suggests that each isn’t a real country (or is “merely a region, an object of subjection“). Likewise for “the Ukraine.”
Incidentally, in Russian and Ukrainian there are no articles, so the “the” question doesn’t come up. But different countries are referred to using different prepositions—for most, you say you are “in” (“v”) the country, but for a few you say you are “on” (“na”) the country: Again (I speak here specifically of Russian), you’d be “on” the Philippines and the Maldives and Ukraine (or the Ukraine), but also on Cuba and Jamaica. My sense is that islands are treated differently from other places, and for some reason Ukraine is treated like the islands. But again, saying “na Filipinakh” or “na Kube” or “na Yamayke” doesn’t remotely deny the sovereignty of those nations; likewise for “na Ukrainie.”
It just stems from languages being complicated systems that contain regularities but also exceptions from the regularities. And it’s a mistake, I think, to ascribe some sort of inherent political statement to such exceptions, or to demand that language speakers discard those exceptions.