Ukraine, Not “The Ukraine”

2022-03-10 – Last time I wrote about labels. I’m writing about them again. This time it’s about Ukraine. But the principle is the same. I call people what they want to be called. It’s a kind of self-determination.

When Ukraine became independent of the old Soviet Union, I noticed that some people were referring to the new country as “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine.” I didn’t appreciate the significance at the time. I thought “the Ukraine” was one of those weird names that contained the definite article, like “the Netherlands.” It turns out that folks were using the change to indicate a change in status for Ukraine—from being a region of the Soviet Union to an independent nation.

If this is what Ukrainians want, I’ll call them what they want. “Ukraine” it is.

The other naming convention emerging in this war is the name of the Ukrainian capital city. Is it Kiev or Kyiv. This one is murkier (for reasons I’ll get to), but the Ukrainians want Kyiv. It’s their city and they get to name it. So Kyiv it is.

The reason I say this one is murkier has nothing to do with the politics or the principle of accepting people’s names for themselves.

The murkiness has to do with the way foreigners (that is, us) hear and spell foreign words in their own language. The capital city of Ukraine is not spelled Kyiv or Kiev by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians spell it “Київ.” The Russians spell their version of the same city name “Киев.” I have listened to the pronunciation of both the Ukranian and Russian words. They are similar, but not identical. But as an English speaker, I have a hard time emulating either one exactly.

For many centuries, colonialists have gone around the world mangling the names of foreign places. The British were prime manglers.

But again, the best solution for me is to try my best to call people what they want to be called—within my limit of being able to pronounce it. Colonialists didn’t care to try. But I do.

And I am certainly able to drop the definite article from the name of the country. But I bet that my pronunciation of Ukraine is not the same as the Ukrainians.

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