The world is watching Ukraine. Television broadcasters, radio channels, newspapers from all over the world tell of Kiev and other cities where the war is raging. Some also report on Kiev. Or Kiev. Or even Kiev. What is meant is capital, of course, but no matter how you spell it, there are other problems there after all, one might think. But it matters to many Ukrainians. To them, few letters can be a political statement, an expression of independence or centuries of oppression – not just now, after the violent invasion of Russia. But now above all.
Because the common spelling in Europe – Kyiv or Kiev – comes from the Russian term Киев. Kyiv, derived from the Ukrainian Київ, prevailed in English-speaking countries. Russian and Ukrainian are both East Slavic languages, as similar as German and Dutch. Both languages use Cyrillic characters, but some letters and pronunciations differ.
“Unfortunately a large part of Ukraine has been under Russian rule for a long time, so the name of our capital was communicated to the outside world as the Russians pronounce it,” says Maria Ivanytska in the video call. She is a professor in the Department of Germanic Philology and Translation at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev. Or as you would write: in Kiev.
You can join her in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz), in western Ukraine, where she stayed with a friend after fleeing Kiev. Ivanytska tells of a colleague who was stuck in a basement in a northern suburb of Kiev with her two-week-old baby for days, and of her body parts lying left and right of the street. And all this resonates with her when she says: “We have our history, our language, our soul and we don’t want to be confused with the Russians in the world.”
For years, Ukrainian people and organizations have been fighting for the Ukrainian transcription of city names. #KyivnotKiev asked for #KyivnotKiev in a campaign in 2018, the umbrella organization of Ukrainian organizations in Germany followed suit, and Ukrainian intellectuals recently repeated the request. “I used to tolerate it and sometimes I wrote and spoke myself in Kiev instead of Kiev,” says Ukrainian writer and Bachmann Award winner Tanja Malyartschuk. After all, Ukrainians also have their own names for European cities. “In view of the war in Ukraine, however, a lot is changing. A conscious use of Kiev or Dnipro (instead of as in Russian Dnepr, ed) 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 satellite of Russia, but as an independent European state that can decide for itself what its capital is called ” .
Russian rulers have repeatedly banned the Ukrainian language
Not only has the territory of Ukraine long been squeezed between great empires – Tsarist Russia in the north, the Ottoman Empire in the south, Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Poland in the west – it has often been the scene of battles. Much of today’s Ukraine has also been under Russian rule for many years. “In Tsarist Russia, the Ukrainian language was banned several times, no Ukrainian books could be printed and Ukrainian could no longer be the language of instruction in schools,” says Ivanytska. At that time, Ukrainian was also called “Little Russian”. Putin quite consciously relies on this when he describes today’s Ukrainians as “little Russians”, which it is important to bring into his empire.
The independent Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed in 1918, but only a few years later the Soviet Union engulfed the country. After a brief period of Ukrainian heyday, Stalin changed politics. “Ukrainian books were burned again,” says Ivanytska. The language was often derided as a woodland dialect, and some words, word forms, and even a letter were deleted from the dictionary in the new Soviet spelling. “It was a huge blow to the Ukrainian language,” says Ivanytska. “Your spine was broken.”
Annexation of Crimea – “Now we have 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 state language, but in fact it dominated the Russian language,” says Ivanytska. To change this, several governments have carried out a coherent Ukrainization in the following years and decades, which continues to the present day. With the laws they have strengthened the language in schools, authorities, radio, cinema, television and the press. As a result, the Russian was inevitably rejected, which was not without criticism. Especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, many people were and still are native speakers of Russian. In 2012 there was even a brawl in parliament over a bill that allowed 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 prompted even more Ukrainians to defend their language. “This got the ball rolling, many Russian speakers deliberately switched to Ukrainian,” says Ivanytska.
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Gerd Hentschel, professor of Slavic studies at Osnabrück University, considers the efforts to reinforce Ukrainian again “understandable and reasonable”. Especially since everyone is still free to speak Russian. “No one in Ukraine is harassed, no one is persecuted and no one is killed for speaking Russian,” he wrote in a 2014 statement, noting that Russian was also spoken freely on the Maidan protest platform. He himself uses Ukrainian transcriptions when he writes proper names, ie he writes “Kyjiw” and “Kyiv” when he publishes scientifically. “I think it is necessary to use the Ukrainian phonetic form as a guide, if only because Ukrainian is undoubtedly the majority language.”
Do you have to change “Bello” too? And “Milan”?
There are three spellings in the dictionary without explanation: Kyiv, Kyiv and Kyiv. The first comes from Russian and is, by 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 must not be changed and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all the main communication houses do it in this way. The SZ also writes “Kiew”, but mainly uses transcription from the local language for other previously unknown Ukrainian places or proper names.
The language changes constantly, often for political reasons, for example Belarus has become 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? So should Milan become Milan? From Nice Nice?
Some media recently changed their spelling, that catapult-The magazine now writes Kiev. “This is important to us, even if it is more symbolic,” says Ivanytska, “just like when many cities now light up their homes with the colors of Ukraine. It gives us a sense of support, that the world listens to us and thinks about it. . “
The most famous poet of Ukraine is in favor of an official and uniform spelling
When you talk to writers from the country, you realize that opinions are changing even among some Ukrainians.
“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. German translations of his books say “Kiew” and “Lemberg”, although he uses the Ukrainian transcripts “Kyiv” and “Lviv” in the e-mails. “It wasn’t a real problem for me because I thought it was part of the autonomy of the German language,” says Andruchowytsch, who also speaks German, on the phone. Just like in German it is written Warsaw and not Warszawa. In the context of the war, however, this takes on a different meaning. It therefore supports a uniform Ukrainian spelling, which is officially defined as the only possible form and to which authors and publishers can adhere.
Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko, whose mother tongue is Russian, also supports Ukrainian transcription. Gaponenko lives in Mainz and has been publishing in German for 25 years. Her Ukrainian lei “has been stuck at the school level for many years,” she says. “As a Russian-speaking native of Odessi, I am going through an irreversible Ukrainianization process these days, along with the vast majority of my compatriots.” The occasion is sad. But without him, she probably would never have thought of taking a Ukrainian course once the war was over.