Skip to main content

The massive sign stood on the edge of town, a little discoloured but hard to miss. A series of cement blocks spelled out "Vinnitsa," clearly indicating the name of this Ukrainian city. Or was it?

Our translator, business journalist Volodymyr Verbyany, recoiled at the sign as we drove by it. "It's Vinnytsia," he said adamantly, forbidding us to spell it any other way. He explained that "Vinnitsa" was derived from the Russian spelling and that the sign was a holdover from the Soviet days. "Vinnytsia is Ukrainian," he added firmly.

Geographic spellings are a big deal in Ukraine, especially now amid the popular uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych, which has divided the country along linguistic lines. Most of those calling for Mr. Yanukovych to resign tend to be from Western Ukraine, which is generally more prosperous and European in outlook. They want the country to join the European Union and pull away from its ties to Russia. For many of them, using Ukrainian spellings is not only a source of pride it's an indication of support for the cause. Those in Eastern Ukraine, where Mr. Yanukovych is from, are largely Russian-speaking and less supportive of the protests.

So where does this leave the rest of the world? Largely confused.

Take Kiev or Kyiv. Shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the government asked the world to start using the Ukrainian spelling, Kyiv, instead of the Russian derivative Kiev (there were also pleas to stop referring to the country as "The Ukraine" which left the impression that it was still a territory of Russia). It took a while but eventually several countries and organizations made the change including the United Nations, the European Union and the Canadian government. The U.S. State Department switched to Kyiv in 2006, in what some say was a gesture of support for the Orange Revolution which led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko as President, who was considered pro-Western.

The media has had a more difficult time adjusting and inconsistencies abound. Many news outlets including The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, Associated Press, BBC and The Wall Street Journal continue to use Kiev. Others such as Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and CBC use Kyiv. But go to virtually any of their websites and you'll find both spellings, sometimes in the same story. The CBC switched to Kyiv years ago, then switched back to Kiev, then to Kyiv.

Part of the reason is pronunciation. The Ukrainian word for the city, Київ, contains two sounds that don't exist in English and pronouncing "Ky-iv" isn't easy. Kiev has also been the English translation for more than 200 years. According to The Globe's style guide, the paper uses "available English names for countries (Germany, not Deutschland) and for cities (Florence, not Firenze; Rangoon, not Yangon; Kiev not Kyiv)." Others have argued that Kiev was used by Ukrainian writers well into the 19th century and reflects the old Ukrainian language.

None of that is likely to end the debate. So expect to see more of Vinnista, Vinnystia, Kiev, Kyiv, Chornobyl and Chernobyl. At least they are all in Ukraine, not The Ukraine.