What’s In A Name?

I often resist the urge to post articles about politics, despite the political overtones of this site’s name.  But recently an issue has come up that has me both scratching my head as well as wondering how names change, and who decides?

As I write this, Russia is invading Ukraine.  I will leave the emotional and humanitarian aspects of this aside for the moment, since my topic is about a name:  The name of Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev.  Or, as many now would have it, Kyiv.

Some quick study shows that Kiev (KEE-ev) was the common English spelling and pronunciation up until the Russians invaded, at which point the “formal” Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of Kyiv (KEEV) was adopted by the western press.  (n.b., the phonetic spellings are taken from Wikipedia or are my own when transliteration is impractical).

Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union since 1922 as one of its “soviet socialist republics.” Ukrainian itself is an ethnic group, and traces its roots back to 32,000 B. C. As with most of Europe, empires have come and gone, and Ukraine has been absorbed and integrated into many of them.  Which brings us back to the name.

Kiev is considered to be the Russian spelling and pronunciation, and for 70+ years was the accepted form.  In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence.  Western usage of the name continued, although Ukrainians quickly adopted their “proper” name, and in 2019 petitioned the United States Board on Geographic Names and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to do the same.  Officially, on maps and other cartographic instruments, Kyiv is now the official name and spelling.

So the question I have is this:  Why does the media, in its “hive mind,” choose to make the distinction now?

(Side note:  As a youth, and after college, I knew the name of the Chinese capital as Peking.  In 1979, the Wade-Giles system for the romanization of written Chinese moved from Cantonese to Mandarin, and thus Peking became Beijing – technically a restoration of the name and not a change.  This was my first exposure to how different cultures apply their conventions to others).

Tossing aside the fact that Kyiv is technically accurate, why does the media now uniformly decide to use it?  There was no such focus prior to the Russian invasion.

Which got me to thinking:  If western media wants to be accurate, why do they not apply the same standard to other capitals?  A few immediate examples I can think of, and their native (albeit phonetic) pronunciations) are:

  • Moscow (Moskva)
  • Paris (Paree)
  • Munich (Muenchen)
  • Budapest (Budapesht)

And one of my favorites:  Copenhagen.  The capital of Denmark is pronounced “Koobenhavn.” English speakers typically pronounce it “Copen-hāgen.”  Some, who wish to appear worldly and effete pronounce it “Copen-hoggen” without knowing that to do is an affront to the natives.  Most Danes are too polite to mention it, but the Germanic pronunciation still carries with it the resentment of the German treatment of the Danes during WWII!

And how about Bangkok?  In Thai, the official name of the capital is Krung Thep Maha Nakon, or colloquially as Krung Thep.  According to Wikipedia,

Officially, the town was known as Thonburi Si Mahasamut (ธนบุรีศรีมหาสมุทร, from Pali and Sanskrit, literally ‘city of treasures gracing the ocean’) or Thonburi, according to the Ayutthaya Chronicles.[15] Bangkok was likely a colloquial name, albeit one widely adopted by foreign visitors, who continued to use it to refer to the city even after the new capital’s establishment.

When King Rama I established his new capital on the river’s eastern bank, the city inherited Ayutthaya’s ceremonial name, of which there were many variants, including Krung Thep Thawarawadi Si Ayutthaya (กรุงเทพทวารวดีศรีอยุธยา) and Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (กรุงเทพมหานครศรีอยุธยา).

As one who has traveled extensively, and who has visited many of the cities listed above, it strikes me as humorous (and perhaps even disingenuous) how the media all of a sudden “discovers” a new name for a place, and then pretend to be intellectually and snobbishly superior by using it.

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