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I will never accept ‘Kyiv’
For that matter, I still haven’t given up on Bombay, Peking or Burma
There is a meme popular with certain internet types opposed to the dehumanising effects of modernity: ‘I will not eat the bugs, I will not live in a pod’. They won’t consume the various fake foods suggested by the Economist, and they want to live in normal homes and raise families, not in a dystopian Gen Z shared living space.
It’s a cry of rage against mulch-creating globalisation by self-described online trads (who I imagine are mostly living a lie and/or insane, but then aren’t we all). I have one tiny little protest to add to that: I will not call it ‘Keev’, or Kyiv. It really grates.
In terms of picking a side in this conflict, I am obviously very pro-Ukraine; so much so that I even attended a political protest for the first time in decades and I’ve come this close to adding a flag to my Twitter handle, and that’s something I just don’t do. Whatever the historical background and however much Russia suffered in the 1990s, we’re now facing a regime that is almost comically evil and a threat to all of Europe. But I’m still not sure why we have to change the English language for the sake of overseas political events.
Kiev is the English name for the city that is now the capital of Ukraine; it’s been an English word for at least 200 years, but no longer. The reason is that Kiev is the Russian spelling, pronounced in English as Key-ev, while Kyiv is the Latinised spelling of the Ukrainian name, which English-speakers pronounce as Keev. The latter is far less pleasant on the ears, sounding almost like ‘Keith’ spoken by someone with a slight speech impediment.
Ukrainian identity being a sensitive subject, their government adopted Kyiv upon independence but following the 2014 Euromaidan protest, the prelude to the war today, there was an active campaign to get foreign press to use the Ukrainian form.
Which they did. Associated Press said at the time: ‘Although the AP prefers traditional English spellings for many cities, including Rome, Moscow and Warsaw (not Roma, Moskva and Warszawa), we regard the Ukrainian spelling of Kyiv as an important adaptation because it is linked to Ukraine’s present status.’ In other words, it’s political.
Kiev is just the latest of many exonyms to be dropped from the English language, a campaign that has until now mainly focussed on Asia. Bombay was replaced by Mumbai, Peking became Beijing and Calcutta turned into Kolkata. Canton is now known by its Mandarin* name of Guǎngzhōu and I suppose one might go further back and say Formosa, Siam and Ceylon.
Burma was stuck in limbo for many years. The word comes from the colloquial term Bamar, which is a bit like ‘Blighty’, and ‘Burma’ and ‘Burmese’ are wonderfully euphonic in English, although perhaps because the latter reminds us of cats. English style guides only held off renaming it because we didn’t like the Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Council, the ruling junta which changed the country’s name to Myanmar, the Burmese word. So English-speakers agreed that they would continue to call it Burma until the military were replaced by the peace-loving democratic liberal opposition (who turned out to be not quite what we hoped).
As with the adoption of ‘Keev’, the abandonment of exonyms is usually political, but sometimes it means blundering into conflicts that the British spent much energy trying to escape. Switching from Bombay to Mumbai may have signalled how tolerant and sophisticated an English-speaker was by using the more authentic name, but Mumbai was also the preferred term of Hindu nationalists. That’s why some Indians still call it Bombay.
The British begun saying Mumbai not just because they like cringing before distant nationalists but because they’re obsessed with social status at home — and one of the ways you display your superiority is through cosmopolitan sophistication. The BBC goes to such immense trouble to pronounce every foreign word correctly partly because it is considered the international radio service of record, but also, I suspect, because of British society’s intense inter-class status competition which can no longer be expressed in traditional ways.
But post-colonial racial sensitivity is the main reason. We don’t say Beograd, Warszawa or München. We don’t call Nicosia by its Greek name Lefkosía, although Cyprus was also a British colony and, like India, we left it bloodily divided.
Certainly it would be odd if style guides suddenly referred to Greece as Hellas; we’ve been using the Latin term since our ancestors first learned about life beyond the Channel (while Britain was named by a Greek) and it would be strange to change that. Greece is just one example of an exonym coming via a third party, another being Finland, the Swedish word for Suomi. (Incidentally the Finnish word for Germany, Saksa, is etymologically related to the Gaelic word for England, Sasana, both named after the Saxons.)
Kiev became so-called because of British contact with Russians, but the earliest English maps refer to it as Kiow or Kiew, suggesting that our knowledge of the city must have come via Germans, Kiew being the modern German name. (The only modern languages that have not adopted Kyiv over Kiev are those close enough to have their own, non-Russian, exonym, such as Kijów in Polish or Kijev in Hungarian.) If we have to de-Russify our name for the city, we should be calling it Kiow or Kiew.
Exonyms are seen as culturally insulting when, in the case of cities, they are a sign of prestige. The more well-known a foreign settlement, the more likely it is to develop an exonym, because it was talked about abroad before the age of widespread literacy. London is Londres, Londyn, Londonas, Londona, Londyn, Londino, Lontoo or Londer, but there are no foreign words for Luton or Basingstoke, as far as I know.
Similarly, we have exonyms for important cities which English merchants and clerics would have visited for many centuries, including (among those just in Italy) Padova, Genova, Firenze, Roma and Milano. AC Milan are famously so-called because the club was founded by the city’s English community, as was Genoa FC (officially Genoa Cricket and Football Club.) Should we not talk of Milano or Genova instead? That might be complicated because Genova is itself an Italian exonym — the Ligurian name is Zena.
Kiev is not the first European city to lose its English exonym; if you look at very old maps, the ones with the globe painted pink which we were apparently made to look at in school, you can still see something called ‘Leghorn’, which came from Ligorna, the Genovese term for Livorno.
I imagine that even the most patriotic Englishman would accept that ‘Livorno’ sounds more attractive. Yet most exonyms are more euphonic to English speakers, and there is something of a Chesterton’s fence-style reason; if a name has been mangled through the transliteration process it has probably been smoothed out to suit our tastes, like foreign cuisine marketed to British palates. Peking rolls off the English tongue more easily than Beijing and Bombay is kinder on our ears than Mumbai. But now we’ve lost them, and I appreciate that this is a lost cause and I probably sound like a letter writer to the Daily Telegraph circa. 1987 complaining that the word ‘gay’ has been taken away.
We’re not getting back Bombay, and now we’ve lost our Chicken Kievs, supermarkets changing the name of the classic 1970s dish in perhaps the emptiest gesture of solidarity in history.
Yet what makes this trend so strange is that in most cases no one else is doing it. Almost every other language in Europe still uses a variation of Peking, while it remains Bombay, Bombai or Bombaj on the continent. Maybe it’s just a peculiar English form of self-flagellation or status signalling; or perhaps it’s yet another aspect of the curse of having the global language, everyone feeling they have the right to be represented by their own spelling in the world’s common tongue. Maybe they feel that way — but it’s also our language. Good luck to the Ukrainians, I hope they secure their homeland from the invaders, and one day I look forward to visiting KEY-EV.
*Edited. It’s Mandarin, not Cantonese. According to @colinhoad ‘Guangzhou is the Mandarin name for what we used to call Canton. The Cantonese name is Gwong Zau. The use of Mandarin names for places in Cantonese-speaking areas of China is, ironically, a political issue too!’