Kiev or Kyiv?

Andrew Gregorovich

IN THE PAST year the capital of Ukraine, which was spelled Kiev in English for centuries, has been the subject of new spellings in the U.S.A. of these the most common ones are Kyiv, Kyiw and Kyyiv. What is the correct spelling in English for the ancient and modern capital of Ukraine? Is there a need for a new spelling which will better serve the American or English reader?

The name Kiev comes from a medieval legend about the founding of the city told by a Chronicler of Rus-Ukraine. It was three brothers, Kie, Shchek and Khoriv, and their sister Lebid, who were the founders. By tradition they founded the city in the 5th century A.D. and in May 1982 the 1,500th anniversary of Kiev was celebrated. It was named Kiev in honor of the oldest brother, King Kie (Kyi, pronounced kiy, in Ukrainian). According to church tradition, the founding of a great city on that location had been predicted by the patron saint of Ukraine, Saint Andrew the Apostle, after he visited this land about 50 A.D. We should note that Kiev was the spelling used by all Ukrainian writers into the nineteenth century and by Taras Shevchenko, the greatest of Ukrainian poets and writers.

Monuments of the founders of Kiev on the 1500th anniversary in 1982. Lebid in the front with King Kie and his brothers Shchek and Khoriv.

First of all, it should be mentioned that the spelling Kiev, (Kiew, Kiow, Kiovia) goes back about 400 years in the English language and others in books and maps. This spelling is based on the old Ukrainian language spelling of the name used for about 1,000 years. So it has some basis in historical origin, tradition and usage in English. In every English language encyclopedia and dictionary today -- I checked sixteen of them -- the form Kiev is the standard spelling.

Kiev, (Kiov or Kiou) on the map Russiae, Moscoviae et Tartaria, by Anthony Jenkinson (London 1562) published by Ortelius in 1570. This was a century before the Muscovite (Russian) government gained power in Ukraine.

Whatever spelling is used does not need to affect the pronunciation. The correct pronundation of Kiev in Ukrainian is approximately kay-yeew, and in English kay-yeev or kee-ev are common. The Russian pronunciation of kee-eff is very rarely heard in English and would be incorrect.

English is a strange language because it really doesn't care about the spelling of the name in the original language. For example, it doesn't care if Florence is spelled Firenze in Italian, or Prague is spelled Praha in Czech, or Moscow is spelled Moskva in Russian, or Rome is Roma, or Munich is Muenchen in the original language. (Yes, we know Peking changed to Beijing but that is an exception to the rule.)

Of course, a linguistic scholar may demand a letter by letter equivalent transliteration but that is academic life not real life. The major academics, however, such as the world's leading Ukrainian linguist, Prof. George Shevelov (Columbia University, emeritus) of New York and Dr. Edward Burstynsky, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto, approve of Kiev as the correct form in English for the capital of Ukraine.


Prof. Burstynsky told FORUM that the spelling Kiev, which reflects the old Ukrainian language, is the best choice. He particularly criticized the spelling Kyyiv used by The Ukrainian Weekly and wondered who perpetrated such a silly spelling. Kyyiv in English looks like a spelling mistake and not a real word. It appears that a few ignorant people thought that Kiev was a "Russian" spelling and were totally unaware that it was used for a thousand years by Ukrainians and their ancestors in Kievan Rus. The spelling Kyiv (Kyyiv) has been used in Ukrainian for only about the last century.

KIEV CITY, Coat of Arms

Unfortunately, Ukrainians in Ukraine have no feeling for the English language and they cannot be expected to appreciate the implications of using Kyiv, or the ugly Kyyiv, in place of the correct and familiar English form Kiev. Some government ministries in Ukraine are now including both forms on their letterheads. Certainly, using Kiev (Kyiv) is correct and helps make it clear.

Most Americans and Canadians will want the name to be recognizable, familiar and pronounceable. It should also agree with the rules of the American or English language. There is no English word that has the letter combination of kyi. On the other hand, the letter combination kie (as in skier) does exist in English. Kyi and kyyi offend the American and English eye because they are abnormal combinations which are not pronounceable in English.

If you write kyyiv on a paper and ask someone who is not Ukrainian what it is they will be puzzled. If told it is a city, they might offer the suggestion, as someone told me, that Kyyiv is the capital of the Kikuyu tribe in darkest Africa. They will definitely never guess that the abominable and ugly spelling of Kyyiv, is the beautiful capital of a European country with almost three million people. The average American laughs at Ukrainians when he sees the word Kyyiv since it looks so silly. Kyyiv is not a suitable spelling for anyone, except someone with a small mind full of pedantry, who is completely ignorant of the English language and has no feeling for the beauty and style of the language.

Anyone who wants to reach the average American or Canadian reader will use a vocabulary and spelling which will be familiar and not one which will confuse or discourage the reader. Kiev is familiar to most English speakers. Kyiv is a suitable modern spelling for the scholarly transliteration of linguistic texts into English; Kyyiv is pedantic and totally unsuitable.

1,000 YEARS

By using the form Kiev we maintain our link with the old Ukrainian language and 1,000 years of our history. If Kievan Rus is an integral and direct part of Ukrainian history then we have the right to the old Ukrainian language spoken there and to the name Kiev. The English speaking world, and most of the world, today recognizes the name Kiev; any other form helps Moscow to confuse and obscure the Ukrainian capital around the world.

Kiev is the spelling used by Ukraine: A Concise Encyclopedia (University of Toronto Press), and the new authoritative Encyclopedia of Ukraine (University of Toronto Press, 1988, vol 2, p. 502). It is also the speiling used by all the world's major English language newspapers. For example, The Financial Times Style Guide (London: Pitman, 1994) says place names should be spelled "as they are internationally known: Kiev not Kiv or Kiyev." Kiev, then, is still the only suitable spelling for American, Canadian and English readers. If Kiev was good enough for Taras Shevchenko and good enough for Ukrainians for 1,000 years then it should be good enough for anyone. A.G.

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Copyright © 1995 Andrew Gregorovich

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 92, Spring 1995
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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Originally Composed: Thursday May 7th 1998.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.