The present upheavals in Ukraine bring the pronunciation of its place names into prominence. Even the country’s name is now subtly different from what it was thirty years ago. Then the geographical area was always called “The Ukraine”, which was suitable for what was a part of a larger whole (cf. “The Midlands”, “The Algarve”)  but since its independence with the break up of the Soviet Union, the definite article has been dropped.

Ukrainian is a different language from Russian, so the old Russian forms of its place names have also, on the whole, been abandoned in favour of the equivalent Ukrainian forms. So we now have Lviv, which used to be Lvov (and before World War II, when it was part of Poland, Lwów), and Kharkiv, formerly Kharkov. The capital, however, has not lost what has become a standard anglicization – Kiev. However, I’m puzzled by the pronunciations for this that I’m hearing on both radio and television. The eponymous dish – chicken kiev – is always pronounced (in my experience at least) /ˈkiːef/, and I have always pronounced the city in the same way. Now, I am hearing /ˈkiːev/ or even /kiːˈev/. These are not the Russian pronunciation, nor the Ukrainian. Must we now start getting used to all Russian or Russian-like names having their final -v pronounced /v/? Moloto/v/? Prokofie/v/? Khrushche/v/?


  1. I’m really surprised you aren’t already used to that. I can’t remember the last time I heard anybody pronounce any of those names with /f/ final. It’s always /v/ in my experience.

  2. I have wondered why some countries get a definite article whereas others do not. There is also the Congo and the Gambia. My mother says that, when she was young, there also the Argentine. Were these countries seen as part of a larger whole?

    In German, Switzerland is die Schweiz and Turkey is die Türkei.

  3. The same thing happened with Pinyin in Chinese. A new systematic transliteration system is introduced, supplanting older spellings that gave the uninitiated more indication of the original pronunciation. (For example, works published in his lifetime usually spell the composer’s name Prokofieff).

  4. Paul – the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation gives /v/ as the only American pronunciation, but admits both /f/ and /v/ for British, as do the English Pronouncing Dictionary (Cambridge) and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Perhaps that explains the difference between your experience and mine.

  5. Ed – I wrote about this a couple of years ago: I’m afraid that when this blog was moved from one platform to another, the phonetic transcriptions were lost, and now I don’t seem to able to recover my original text, but it doesn’t affect the jist of my post.

  6. Ed – I should have added that “The Argentine” was shorthand for “The Argentine Republic”. We don’t seem to have any short version for “The Czech Republic” – I’ve heard “Czechia”, but not in any consistent way.

  7. On last night’s News at Ten Huw Edwards pronounced the name of the fugitive ex-president as jaˈnuːkÉ™vɪtʃ. Until that point the only pron. I had heard was ËŒjanuˈkəʊvɪtʃ. I don’t know which is the more accurate.

  8. Wikipedia gives the Ukrainian form of his name as Януко́вич; I know no Ukrainian, but presume that the acute accent signifies stress in the penult.

  9. Wikipedia gives the pronunciation of Kiev as [ˈkɪjiw], but John Wells (LPD) gives [ˈkɨjɪf]. Allowing for different interpretations of vowel quality, is the [w] versus [f] significant? I admit my ignorance of Ukrainian, and the sound file on Wikipedia doesn’t help me much (although the vowels sound to me much more like JW’s transcription than Wikipedia’s).

  10. I can understand the reasons for wanting to keep SevasTOpol as SeBAStopol, given that city’s place in British history, but I do wish the BBC’s correspondents would be more consistent in the way they say the names of the Ukrainian places we are now hearing so much about.

    In just one BBC news bulletin today I heard SimfeROpol (which is the correct stress pattern, I believe) followed shortly afterwards (from, I’m sure, the same correspondent) SimFEropol — and later in the same programme another journalist said SIMferopol!

    (Using upper case to indicate primary stress — is it possible to use bold and/or underscoring in these posts?)

  11. While some may live in hope that the Beeb might arrive at a pronunciation that was close to the native or otherwise justified, or at least simply consistent, I am closer to despair. Yalda Hakim last week on the Whirled Service told us of a ‘cachet of arms’ being discovered.
    What is that rumbling noise from underneath Lord Reith’s tombstone?

  12. Kevin – it is not possible at the moment to use bold or italics or underlining in comments. My apologies for that. I agree with you that while Radio 4 newsreaders are mostly getting Simferopol stressed correctly (as you would expect from the discipline they show in following the research done on their – and the rest of the BBC’s – behalf by the Pronunciation Unit), presenters of programmes, including those that the public perceive as ‘newsreaders’ but are in fact journalists, who do not share the newsreaders’ management and operate under different guidelines, are frequently failing to take advantage of the advice and information available to them.

  13. I am a bilingual speaker of Russian and Ukrainian.
    This is the pronunciation of Kiev in Ukrainian:
    Vocative ‘kıjeÊ‹É›
    Nominative + Accusative ‘kıjiu̯
    Genitive ‘kıjeÊ‹É‘
    Locative ‘kıjeÊ‹ji
    Dative ‘kıjeβ̞u
    Instrumental ‘kıjeβ̞om
    And this is the pronunciation of Kiev in Russian:
    Nominative + Accusative ‘kjiif
    Genitive ‘kjiivÉ™
    Locative ‘kjiivji
    Dative ‘kjiivu
    Instrumental ‘kjiivÉ™m

  14. Andriy -Thank you very much for this comprehensive transcription.

  15. But what of the name of the country itself ? Listening to native Ukrainian speakers on BBC Radio 4, I hear /ˌuːkraɪˈiːn/, but when I used that pronunciation in conversation with a British-resident Ukrainian, he responded using /juːkreɪn/.

  16. Philip – if you go down that road, you have to use Deutschland, España, Sverige, etc for other country names. If I was speaking French, I would say “Angleterre” for my own country, and probably continue using this even if my French interlocutor was saying “England” (a highly unlikely scenario!). Most country names have established pronunciations in many languages, often very different from that used in the language of the country concerned.

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