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Kyiv or Kyiv: four letters for freedom

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The world is looking at Ukraine. TV stations, radio channels, newspapers from all over the world report on kyiv and the other cities where the war is raging. Some also report on kyiv. Or Kyiv. Or even kyiv. Of course, it refers to capitalization, but no matter how you spell it, you might think there are other issues there after all. But it is important for many Ukrainians. For them, a few letters can be a political statement, an expression of independence or centuries of oppression, not only now, since the violent invasion of Russia. But now especially.

Because the common spelling in Europe, Kyiv or kyiv, is derived from the Russian term Киев. Kyiv, derived from the Ukrainian Київ, has prevailed in English-speaking countries. Russian and Ukrainian are East Slavic languages, as closely related as German and Dutch. Both languages ​​use Cyrillic characters, but some letters and pronunciation differ.

“Unfortunately, a large part of Ukraine was under Russian rule for a long time, so the name of our capital was communicated to the outside world as Russians pronounce it,” says Maria Ivanytska in the video call. She is a professor at the Department of Germanic Philology and Translation at the Taras Shevchenko National University in kyiv. Or as she would write: in kyiv.

kyiv or kyiv? "We have our history, our language, our soul"says the Ukrainian philologist Maria Ivanytska.

“We have our history, our language, our soul,” says Ukrainian philologist Maria Ivanytska.

(Photo: private)

You can locate her in Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, where she stayed with a friend after fleeing kyiv. Ivanytska tells of a colleague who was trapped in a basement in a northern kyiv suburb with her two-week-old baby for days, parts of her body left and right on the street. And she all of that she resonates when she says, “We have our history, our language, our soul, and we don’t want to be confused with the Russians of the world.”

For years, people and organizations in Ukraine have been campaigning for the Ukrainian transcription of city names. #KyivnotKiev demanded #KyivnotKiev in a campaign in 2018, the umbrella organization of Ukrainian organizations in Germany did the same, and Ukrainian intellectuals recently repeated the demand. “I used to put up with it, and sometimes I myself wrote and spoke Kyiv instead of Kyiv,” says Ukrainian writer and Bachmann Prize winner Tanja Malyartschuk. After all, Ukrainians also have their own names for European cities. “In view of the war in Ukraine, however, many things are changing. A conscious use of Kyiv or Dnipro (instead of as in Russian Dnepr, editor’s note) it would be a symbol of the fact that people in German-speaking countries are willing to no longer perceive Ukraine as an eternal colony or a satellite of Russia, but as an independent European state that can decide for itself what its capital is called “.

kyiv or kyiv? "I used to put up with it and sometimes I wrote Kyiv instead of Kyiv"says writer Tanya Malyarchuk.

“I used to put up with it, and sometimes I wrote Kyiv instead of Kyiv myself,” says writer Tanya Malyarchuk.

(Photo: Sofia Rudejchuk/dpa)

Russian rulers repeatedly banned the Ukrainian language

The territory of Ukraine has not only long been between great empires (tsarist Russia to the north, the Ottoman Empire to the south, Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Poland to the west), but has often been the scene of battles. Much of present-day Ukraine was also under Russian rule for many years. “In tsarist Russia, the Ukrainian language was banned several times, Ukrainian books were not allowed to be printed, and Ukrainian was no longer allowed to be the language of instruction in schools,” says Ivanytska. At that time, the Ukrainian was also called “Little Russian”. Putin very consciously builds on this when he describes today’s Ukrainians as “little Russians” who are important to incorporate into his empire.

The independent Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in 1918, but only a few years later the country was swallowed up by the Soviet Union. After a brief heyday in the Ukraine, Stalin changed his policy. “Ukrainian books were burned again,” says Ivanytska. The language was often derided as a forest dialect, and some words, word forms, and even a letter were removed from the dictionary in the new Soviet orthography. “It was a huge blow to the Ukrainian language,” says Ivanytska. “Your spine was broken.”

Annexation of Crimea – “We’ve had enough”

The turning point came with the independence of Ukraine in 1991, also in terms of language policy, although not all at once. “De jure, Ukrainian was the language of the state, but de facto it dominated the Russian language,” says Ivanytska. To change that, various governments pushed for a consistent Ukrainization in the following years and decades, which continues to this day. With laws they strengthened the language in schools, in authorities, radio, cinema, television and the press. As a result, the Russian was inevitably rejected, which was not without its critics. Especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, many people were and still are native Russian speakers. In 2012 there was even a brawl in parliament over a bill allowing Russian as an official regional language in parts of Ukraine. Last but not least, the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 made even more Ukrainians defend their language. “That set everything in motion, many Russian speakers deliberately switched to Ukrainian,” says Ivanytska.

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Gerd Hentschel, professor of Slavic studies at the University of Osnabrück, considers the efforts to strengthen Ukrainian again “understandable and reasonable”. Especially since everyone is still free to speak Russian. “No one in Ukraine is being harassed, no one is being persecuted and no one is being killed for speaking Russian,” he wrote in a 2014 statement, noting that Russian was freely spoken even on the podium of the Maidan protests. He himself uses Ukrainian transcriptions when he writes proper names, that is, he writes “Kyjiw” and “Kyïv” when he publishes scientifically. “I think it is necessary to use the Ukrainian phonetic form as a guide, if only because Ukrainian is definitely the majority language.”

Do you have to change “Nice” too? And “Milan”?

There are three spellings in the dictionary without explanation: Kyiv, Kyiv and Kyïv. The first comes from Russian and is, due to historical custom, the most common spelling in Germany. There are good reasons for this. For example, that everyone understands them, that everyone can pronounce them, that the forms do not have to be changed and that the Foreign Office and all the major media do so. The SZ also writes “Kiew”, but mainly uses the local language transcription for other places or previously unknown Ukrainian proper names.

The language is always changing, often for political reasons, for example Belarus became Belarus, and its use is not always uniform in the media and the public. But where do you start to change, where do you stop? Would Milan then have to become Milano? From Nice Nice?

Some media have recently changed their spelling, which catapult-Magazine now writes kyiv. “That’s important to us, although it’s more symbolic,” says Ivanytska, “just like when many cities now light up their houses in the colors of Ukraine. It gives us a sense of support, that the world listens to us and thinks of us.” . .”

Ukraine’s most famous poet is in favor of a uniform and official spelling.

When you talk to writers from the country, you realize that opinions are also changing among some Ukrainians.

kyiv or Kyiv?: Speaking Ukrainian is considered progressive, says Ukrainian poet Yuri Andrukhovych.

Speaking Ukrainian is considered progressive, says Ukrainian poet Yuri Andrukhovych.

(Photo: Yurii Rylchuk/imago images/Ukrinform)

“I see the trend that speaking Ukrainian is considered progressive. The number of people using this language is growing,” says Yuri Andrukhovych, the most famous Ukrainian poet. The German translations of his books say “Kiew” and “Lemberg”, although he uses the Ukrainian transliterations “Kyiv” and “Lviv” in the emails. “That wasn’t really a problem for me because I thought it was part of the autonomy of the German language,” says Andruchowytsch, who also speaks German, over the phone. As in German, Warsaw is written and not Warszawa. In the context of war, however, this takes on a different meaning. Therefore, he advocates a uniform Ukrainian orthography, which is officially defined as the only possible form and to which authors and publishers can adhere.

kyiv or Kyiv?: The writer Marjana Gaponenko supports Ukrainization, even though her mother tongue is Russian.

The writer Marjana Gaponenko supports Ukrainization, although her mother tongue is Russian.

(Photo: imago stock&people)

Even the Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko, whose mother tongue is Russian, supports the Ukrainian transcription. Gaponenko lives in Mainz and has been publishing in German for 25 years. Her Ukrainian “has been stagnant at the school level for many years,” she says. “As a Russian-speaking native of Odessi, I am going through an irreversible Ukrainization process these days, along with the vast majority of my compatriots.” The occasion is sad. But without him, I probably would never have thought of attending a Ukrainian course once the war is over.


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