Analysis: The adoption of the name Kyiv is part of the linguistic battle to legitimise Ukraine as an independent nation

As the sovereignty of Ukraine has come under increasing threat in the past number of weeks, many will also have noticed a shift in the naming of its capital city. Irish media has made a deliberate choice to reject the well-established Russian language transliteration Kiev in favour of the Ukrainian language transliteration Kyiv.

Kyiv became the official English language name for the capital in 1995 and the Ukrainian government has been running a KyivNotKiev campaign since 2018. However, the adoption of this precise name at this precise time goes beyond simply aligning with Ukraine’s wishes. Rather, it can be viewed as another victory – albeit belated – in the linguistic battle to legitimise Ukraine as an independent nation.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Donnacha Ó'Beacháin from DCU on the Kyiv vs Kiev debate

The linguistic means with which Ukraine has used in its endeavour to position itself as independently distinct from Russia has fascinated this applied linguist researcher for some time. From the point of view of applied linguistics, the study of the naming of places is known as critical or political toponymy. It explores how issues surrounding politics and identity intersect in the official or unofficial naming of places and fix or uncover 'a social or political order’.

It also takes into account how individuals use these place names as a means of enacting their own political, ethnic and national identities. This, of course should not be of any surprise to those of us with a knowledge of the Irish toponymical landscape. After all, the Derry/Londonderry dispute is still raging.

With regards to the toponymical landscape of Ukraine, the country embarked on a process of desovietisation and derussification of its place names after the fall of the USSR like most former Soviet republics. While this was commonplace, it somehow resonated deeper in Ukraine as the very meaning of the name of the country may imply a lack of sovereignty and interdependence on Russia. This was something Ukrainians were aware of and strove, linguistically, to reject.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, discussion on day six of the Ukraine invasion

The word Ukraine may be understood in a particular way which can have a profound impact on how the country itself is viewed. For many Russian speakers, the word Ukraine is transparently broken down into two main parts or morphemes. They are ‘u’ and ‘krai’. ‘U’ can roughly be translated as ‘at’ in English. ‘Krai’ means ‘edge’. As a result, the word ‘Ukraine’ may conjure up an image, not of an independent nation, but of a region at the edge of a sovereign country, which presumably is Russia.

This mental image of a region on the edge of a country was further solidified in Russian and Ukrainian by the preposition which traditionally accompanied the country’s name; and in English by the use of the definite article (The Ukraine). The word Ukraine had been collocated with the preposition ‘na’ (on) instead of the more common ‘v’ (in) in both Russian and Ukrainian despite the fact that ‘na’ (on) is more commonly used for regions and ‘v’ for countries.

This may seem superficial. After all, it’s only a preposition, but feelings around it run extremely high. In 1993, the Ukrainian government formally requested that the Russian government change the preposition from ‘na’ to ‘v’ in official documentation with the aim of receiving 'linguistic confirmation of its status as a sovereign state’. While the Russian state reacted nonchalantly, over time, the new linguistic form was adopted by many people.

However, in a 2016 study I conducted into the weaponization of the use of prepositions in Russian social media during the Crimean crisis, results strongly suggest that the use of ‘na’ vs ‘v’ was deliberately used by many people as a political football to demarcate political and ethnic faultlines. In short people intentionally used ‘na’ to position themselves as pro-Kremlin, thus denying the sovereignty of Ukraine; and ‘v’ to position themselves as anti-Kremlin and to acknowledge Ukraine as an independent nation.

Returning to the recent shift to Kyiv instead of Kiev, the importance of linguistic choice becomes very clear. Whether it’s the use of ‘v’ Ukraine in Russian; Ukraine as opposed to The Ukraine in English (Simon Coveney, take note!), or the adoption of Kyiv, it is imperative to highlight that this is about so much more than just using a more up-to-date or politically-correct version of a place name.

Our choice of linguistic form becomes a powerful indicator that we recognise Ukraine as a legitimate, independent nation and not a region of Russia that has simply been annexed by artificial borders. So what’s in a name? The answer must be ‘a lot’. The naming of places evokes history, ethnicity, politics and future hopes.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ