Opinion Politics, 28/08/2016

When the Spellings of Place Names Matter

Taras Danko, Anastasiya Makarenko, Joe Plommer

“What do people think about Kiev/Kyiv?” asked Shaun Walker, Moscow correspondent of the Guardian, on Friday. “Every time you write ‘Kiev’ on Twitter / in articles you get shrieked at by Ukrainians”, he went on, adding that “nobody starts shrieking MOSKVA and LISBOA every time you write those”.

But as Brian Whitmore wrote in response, “there’s a political subtext here”.

Between most European countries, the naming of places is not a controversial matter. An Italian would have little basis for correcting a German’s Neapel, or a Dane for being upset by a French Copenhague.

But Ukrainians are still, to a large extent, excluded from the reasonably stable and equitable set of relations that most European states enjoy with each other. In a country whose borders are still being trampled over by an aggressive neighbor, the naming of places remains an intensely political matter.

As Walker correctly asserted, “Kiev” has become part of “standard English”. But over time, and particularly during the past half-century or so, “standard English” has revised the way it describes various groups of people in response to people within those groups speaking up about how they would like to be described. Language relating to race, gender and sexuality has been reconfigured in a particularly dramatic way – and usually, this has been for the better.

In post-colonial situations, the renaming of places is a well-established way for newly independent countries to assert their sovereignty. It is not always popular with everyone inside those countries – many Indians still say “Bombay”, and some in Vietnam prefer “Saigon” – but the general principle, in the context of places emerging from external subjugation, has solid foundations: it is we who will decide what the places in our country are called.

In this context, the fastidiousness that Ukrainians sometimes display over the naming of their cities becomes more understandable.

As Walker also correctly points out, “Kiev” would not, according to current norms, be the standard transliteration from Russian of the city’s name. But it is a transliteration that emerged during Ukraine’s domination by Russia. So while the insistence of Ukrainians on “Kyiv” could at first look pedantic, it feels to many like an important and legitimate statement of self-determination.

Here in the east of Ukraine, the politics of place names arguably has more concrete repercussions. In 2014, Kharkiv – or Kharkov, as it is transliterated from Russian – was widely seen as a potential target for takeover by a similar coalition of separatist rebels and Russian military personnel who now control parts of neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Kharkiv is a largely Russian-speaking city, and few here would be offended to hear “Kharkov” used in day-to-day speech. But the fact that Kharkivites speak Russian does not indicate that they wish for their city to be part of Russia, and the use of the Ukrainian spelling in an international context is an important reminder of this.

Indeed, many have attributed the fact that Kharkiv has been left alone by the Russian hybrid forces that invaded nearby to the many overt displays of Ukrainian identity that the city has put on since 2014.

We hope, in future, that there will be a world in which Ukrainians have no business getting involved in how speakers of other languages name their cities. But for now, this ambition remains a work in progress.


Picture: Marco Fieber via Flickr