It is not the most important question regarding the international maelstrom currently brewing in Ukraine.
But it is a very common question, and one that carries what some may find an unexpectedly political answer: How do you pronounce the capital’s name, Kyiv?
Ukrainians have a preference — and it might not be the one most commonly heard or assumed. It sounds more similar to “keev” than the two-syllable “key-EV” favored by many Russian speakers, but that’s not exactly it, either.
Andrii Smytsniuk, a Ukrainian who teaches Ukrainian and Russian languages at the University of Cambridge, broke the word down letter by letter for English speakers in an interview on Tuesday. It’s a bit hard to describe.
The K sound is the same as in English.
The Y is similar to the I sounds in “little bit.”
The I is similar to the first part of “yeast.”
The V is a slightly shorter version of a W, as in “low,” or almost like the V in “love.”
Marta Jenkala, who teaches the Ukrainian language at University College London, endorsed the pronunciation seen in a video by Oleksandra Wallo, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas.
“It helps if you smile a little bit to say it, especially on the first syllable,” she said in the video.
In 2019, Yuri Shevchuk, a lecturer in Ukrainian at Columbia University, told The New York Times that native Ukrainians stress the first vowel, and pronounce it like the “i” in the word “kid” or “lid.” The second vowel is pronounced as a separate syllable, and sounds like the “ee” sound in “keel.” The V is also pronounced a bit differently, like the end of the word “low.”
One common pronunciation, “key-ev,” is the Russian form of saying it, and it is one Americans may tend to hear more often. Mr. Smytsniuk said he would argue for people pronouncing it the Ukrainian way “that is as close to the original as possible.”
“It is the same thing with names,” he said. “I think it makes sense to pronounce someone’s name the way the person would pronounce it.”
A discussion of the city name and pronunciation is the first thing he goes over in his Ukrainian language courses, he said, along with “Ukraine” versus “the Ukraine.” (When Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, the preferred name became “Ukraine.”)
Most people are unaware of how to pronounce Kyiv, so he tries not to aggressively correct people, Mr. Smytsniuk said. But many people do take the issue seriously, he said.
“When I see American media, it’s always different, it’s always new, always a surprise,” he said.