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Why I Will Never Again Refer to the Ukrainian Capital City as Kiev
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Why I Will Never Again Refer to the Ukrainian Capital City as Kiev

Yes, even spelling can be important in the war of Ukraine, writes linguist Marten van der Meulen. This is why he will never again refer to the embattled capital city as Kiev.

I watched the images of the invasion of Ukraine with horror. The unimaginable suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian people by a megalomaniac villain with an inferiority complex is horrifying. Fortunately, there are a lot of reactions, from economic sanctions to the cancellation of sporting events (which has more impact than many people think, see here). There are also symbolic actions. I don’t really believe in some of these, such as adding the obligatory flag to your social media account. Yet there is one symbolic action that I think does have meaning. It relates to the spelling of the Ukrainian capital.

Non-Dutch names of geographies can be spelled in two different ways. First, you can adapt the foreign name to your own language. If you do that, you will get what is called an exonym. This deviates from the name that is used in writing by the people of the place or country concerned. There are quite a few of these adapted names of countries and places in Dutch: just think of Parijs, Berlijn, Londen, Rome, Athene, Spanje, Duitsland, Zweden, Finland and so on.

Alternatively, you can adopt the name as it reads in the language of the geographical location. We then get an endonym. We have a lot of these words too: from New York to Tokyo, from Buenos Aires to Oslo, and from Portugal to Fiji. Exonyms are often old; for ‘new’ places, or at least places that have only recently appeared in Dutch, we mostly use endonyms nowadays. Look for example at Srebrenica and Kandahar.

The decision to use an exonym or endonym is not absolute and final. Over the past centuries, a number of exonyms have disappeared. For example, we used Dortmuiden, Doblijn, Kanton and Abberdaan. Nobody uses those names anymore these days. Instead, we now use the endonyms Dortmund, Dublin, Guangzhou and Aberdeen. These exonyms disappeared for no particular reason. Presumably, they slowly became obsolete: new people were taught the existing endonyms.

In the past, we used the exonyms Dortmuiden, Doblijn, Kanton and Abberdaan. Today we use the endonyms Dortmund, Dublin, Guangzhou and Aberdeen

But language can also change deliberately, and politics is important in this context. Certainly, geographical names are subject to this. For example, names are still sometimes changed today in countries that are breaking free from their colonial past. Bombay and Madras are now referred to as Mumbai and Chennai. Alternatively, a new way of transliteration (i.e., representing sounds the way they are written) may become more popular. Based on this, some Chinese cities are now spelled differently, for example, Beijing instead of Peking. In many cases, this is the choice of the people from the city in question: they want their own name to be respected.

Something similar is going on with the Ukrainian capital. The name of the capital is generally spelled Kiev in Dutch. In the past, there were also other variations. For example, I find a text from 1711 that refers to Kieof. And as recently as 1916, a style guide of the newspaper De Telegraaf recommended writing a -w at the end of the word, so Kiew. However, Kiev is a transliteration from Russian, from the word Киев. This means that it is actually a double exonym. Not entirely unique, but unusual. The best-known other example is Florence, which is the French version of the Italian Firenze. In Ukrainian, which is a separate language (the linguistic affinity between Russian and Ukrainian is similar to that between English and Dutch), the spelling is Київ. Its transliteration is more likely to be Kyiv, Kjiev or Kyjiv.

For a long time, this Russian exonym was not a real problem. But as ties between Ukraine and Russia continued to deteriorate, partially as a result of the unlawful occupation of Crimea in 2014, it raised more awareness. In 2018, the Ukrainian government campaigned to adopt transliteration in the Ukrainian alphabet. The version they promoted was Kyiv, as a transliteration of Київ. English-language media in particular were quick to adopt this. In Dutch, this form could also be used. In fact, it is a relatively small but symbolic effort to change all Ukrainian place names to the Ukrainian spelling. We already do this in part: Lviv, for example, is written after the Ukrainian version, instead of the Russian Lvov. So why not implement this further?

Lviv, for example, is written after the Ukrainian version, instead of the Russian Lvov. So why not implement this further?

Unfortunately, the Dutch-language media still pays scant attention to it. Only de Volkskrant made the choice to use Kyiv for now. Other media hide behind all sorts of arbitrary arguments. RTL Nieuws, for instance, says it will stick to Kiev because that is “the most neutral and Dutch name for the city”. Nonsense: language is never neutral, and the name Kiev is certainly not. The editor-in-chief of the NOS speaks of “the recognizability” as an important factor. Another ridiculous point of view: as if people would not recognize Kjiev or Kyiv, let alone when it is used in context. In addition, the VRT takes it to the extreme. They do a nice bit of cherry-picking (“we also have Parijs”) but also look at usage. Kiev, they say, is simply the most widely used. This is exactly the randomness that I spoke about earlier. In other cases, such as the well-known heel mooi (very beautiful) instead of hele mooie (very beautiful), the dominant form hele is precisely ignored. It’s just dirty linguistic opportunism all around.

The attitude of the language consultants and media is disappointing, but yet to be expected. You will rarely catch these people being progressive or showing political courage. But I expected more from the people. When I shared my call to use Kyiv on Twitter, a staggering amount of fallacy and foot-dragging conservatism followed. The haltingness of “yes, but that’s how I learned it so that’s the One Absolute Unchanging Truth” again proves stronger than the much simpler empathy. It’s always striking to see people can’t escape the slippery slope argument. Nobody asks you to write Paris instead of Parijs, or Moskwa instead of Moscow. Only in very specific cases, you are asked to do something. But even that is apparently too much to ask for. While the Ukrainian government itself is asking if you can please do it!

This obstinate attitude, even in the face of people who themselves ask to be called otherwise, we also see in other linguistic areas. In the fuss about the form of address the Dutch Railways uses, for instance, which switched to “dear travellers”. In this way, non-binary people could also be addressed, as they were not included in the formerly-used “dear ladies and gentlemen”. A very simple and, admittedly, not very extensive change, which nevertheless made a group of people feel a tiny bit more welcome. Sadly, all angry responses. Again, too much to ask for. Blind linguistic conservatism wins again.

Will a little linguistic flexibility win the war? No. But these are symbolic gestures, and symbols have power

Will a little linguistic flexibility win the war? No. It doesn’t do that any better than using “best travellers” ensures that people who identify as non-binary feel more accepted. But these are symbolic gestures, and symbols have power. It shows that you are willing to make a change. This only takes a small effort from us: so, let’s agree to make that effort. Use Kyiv, Kijiv, or Kijev, but not Kiev.

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