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Kyiv or Kiev? Why does it matter so much to Ukrainians?

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Kyiv or Kiev? Why does it matter so much to Ukrainians?
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Natalia Liubchenkova/Euronews
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Kyiv or Kiev? These are the two most common ways of writing the name of Ukraine’s capital.

Last week the United States Board on Geographic Names (USGS) considered the appeal of the Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States and replaced "Kiev" with "Kyiv", as the correct spelling for the capital of Ukraine.

Many other international organisations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), now might follow this example too - as they usually refer to the official names in the USGS database. This means, in particular, that more airports around the world will put “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev” on their departure and arrival boards.

What's in a name?

But the spelling is very similar so what's the big deal? And what is the difference between the two options?

“Kyiv” is an official Latin transliteration of the city’s name in the Ukrainian language. This is not the only language spoken in the country - but it is the only official one. Ukraine has adopted standards of rendering its toponymic names from Cyrillic into Latin using Ukrainian transcription and hopes the international community will use it too.

“Kiev” comes from the Russian way of pronouncing Ukraine’s capital name. This spelling and transcription became the most common internationally during the 20th century. For many Ukrainians today it is now associated with so-called “Russification” - banning the use of Ukrainian language in print and other actions by Russian Empire and then Soviet State to strengthen Russian linguistic and political positions in Ukraine.

Not a new campaign

As an independent state since 1991, Ukraine has campaigned for the Ukrainian transcription to be used in English and other languages for a long time. It became even more of a sensitive issue for many Ukrainians since 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine resulting in a still-ongoing conflict. At the end of last year, The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry launched a social media campaign encouraging users to use hashtags #CorrectUA and #KyivNotKiev to ask international media to switch from “Kiev” to “Kyiv”.

What are exonyms?

Many respected international media outlets still indeed use “Kiev”. Those individuals who stick to this choice often argue that the use of 'exonyms' - an external names for a geographic place - is not new. For example, Deutschland is called “Germany” in English, 'Allemagne' in French, 'Niemcy' in Polish. They think the countries have a right to decide themselves how they want other places to be called in their language.

Not just the capital

This issue doesn't only exist in Kyiv. In Soviet times, Russian geographical names for places in Ukraine existed alongside the local ones. As a result the names for almost everywhere have both Russian and Ukrainian versions. What happens often in the media is that the 'Russian version' is used for very common names - like Kiev, Chernobyl, Odessa (Ukrainian transcription: Kyiv, Chornobyl, Odesa), while less known locations are simply used as found in Ukrainian press and sources.

Besides, some Ukrainians themselves don't pay much attention to the Kyiv/Kiev dilemma. They use Kiev either because they're Russian speakers or simply have continued to use it out of habit - sometimes you can still see “Kiev” on the streets of Kyiv.

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