Why Is Ukraine's Capital Pronounced 'Kyiv' and Not 'Kiev'?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force fighter, Kyiv
A fighter of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces, the military reserve of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, carries a Kalashnikov machine gun as he walks in the center of Kyiv on Feb. 28, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

For decades, people in the West pronounced the capital of Ukraine with two clear syllables: "KEE-ev." But with the current Russian invasion into Ukraine in the news, you've probably noticed that reporters are saying something slightly different.

That's because U.S. and European news agencies are largely using the Ukrainian pronunciation of Kyiv, which is more like one syllable, or maybe two that slide into each other: "KEE-eev" or "KEE-yiv". Note too that most news outlets are using the spelling "Kyiv" rather than "Kiev" for the capital city. The former is closer to the local spelling using the Cyrillic alphabet.

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Martha Wexler, senior editor for NPR's International Desk, gave her colleagues a bit of a break on getting it exactly right. "It's like KEE-eev. But if you say KEEV that is fine," she wrote.

So, when did the pronunciation change? It might seem to have just happened in 2022, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched its CorrectUA campaign using the "KyivNotKiev" hashtag back in 2018. It asked English-language news outlets to change the spelling and pronunciation of Kyiv to reflect its Ukrainian origin. That came just after Russia annexed Crimea (which was part of Ukraine), and Ukraine was eager to remind other countries that it had been independent of the Soviet Union for nearly three decades at that point. The "KEE-ev" pronunciation was the Russian-language version.

Speaking of the country's Soviet past, that's another change you've probably noticed. When the country was part of the U.S.S.R., it was referred to as "the Ukraine." After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained its independence – and dropped the "the" – in 1991. Other cities changed spellings as well, including Odesa (which used to be spelled Odessa). "The usage of Soviet-era place names – rooted in the Russian language – is unacceptable to the people of Ukraine," wrote Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2018, according to the Kyiv Post.

Oleksandra Wallo, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas, has a YouTube video to help you learn to pronounce "Kyiv" correctly. She advises smiling when you say the word (though the current news can make that tough to do), as it helps get your lips in the right place for the vowels.

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