Last week, Nation Senior Diplomatic Writer Aggrey Mutambo declared to his colleagues: “We’ve a diplomatic incident on our hands.” The Ukrainian Embassy had complained the Nation was referring their capital as “Kiev” instead of “Kyiv”.
Ukraine is the country from where we borrowed the Orange Revolution. Kyiv was the focal point of the mass action, in which thousands of protesters demonstrated daily in the aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, which was said to have been rigged.
Kyiv, founded in the fifth century, is the seventh-most populous city in Europe with a population of about three million. It is an important scientific and educational centre in Eastern Europe, popular for such subjects as ICT, engineering and medicine. It attracts many Kenyan students.
The genesis of the “diplomatic incident” is the fact that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. “Kiev” is the Russian way of pronouncing the name of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. For many Ukrainians, Kiev is associated with the much-hated “Russification” in which the Russian Empire banned the use of the Ukrainian language in print so as to strengthen Russian linguistic and political colonialism.
Following independence in 1991, Ukrainians rejected the Soviet-era “Kiev” and adopted the Ukrainian language Romanised spelling of the capital city, “Kyiv”. This was a symbolic departure from all things Russian.
“Kyiv” is now used by the UN and international bodies. The Economist, as well as the Guardian and its sister newspaper The Observer, are among the big media that have also adopted the spelling. However, much of the English language international media continue to use “Kiev” — perhaps more out of force of habit than anything else. This irritates Ukrainians.
Mr Mutambo told the Ukrainian Embassy that, after some brainstorming, the Nation has chosen to stay with Kiev. This, he says, is the popular version used by global media such as the New York Times, Washington Post and the BBC.
He also states that the rationale for using Kiev is “consistency and ease of pronunciation”. Further, he says, they’ve borrowed from “Kiev or Kyiv? Why is the question of what to call Ukraine’s capital so hard to answer?” an article published in The Calvert Journal, a London-based publication for culture in the New East.
“Why shouldn’t the media use Kiev? We ponder,” the article poses. “We do, after all, say Munich, not München, and Rome, not Roma.”
It concludes: “For now, while we are sensitive to the issues involved, we are sticking with Kiev at The Calvert Journal. From where we are sitting in London, it makes sense to use the accepted international spelling as it best serves our aims of reaching a global English-speaking audience.”
Mr Mutambo, in his response to the Ukrainian Embassy, followed the advice of Training Editor Henry Gekonde.
“We go with the popular spelling — Kiev,” Mr Gekonde had told him. “If the embassy wants to know our rationale, I’d tell them that’s what other mainstream media outlets — like the BBC and the NY Times — do. If we give special treatment to Ukraine, we will have to do the same for all other nations, and that’s impractical. Besides, no one in Kenya can pronounce ‘Kyiv’.”
The Nation Stylebook is silent on the spelling. However, the reasons advanced by the Nation for sticking with the Soviet-era spelling are difficult to sell. First, the Nation is not consistent. In its sports pages and some news articles, it freely uses, from time to time, “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev”.
Secondly, difficulty in pronunciation has never been a valid reason for refusing to call a person or place by their preferred names. If that were the case, many news organisations would never have accepted to refer to Ivory Coast as Côte d’Ivoire, Burma as Myanmar, Bombay as Mumbai, Peking as Beijing and so on.
History is replete with changes of names of countries and cities to suit changing history and cultures. By calling the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the name preferred by Ukrainians, we would not be giving any special treatment to Ukraine or unduly torturing our readers with a difficult pronunciation.
Lastly, following the lead of TheNew York Times does not necessarily make us right. For, in general, people and countries should be referred to by the names they choose.
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