The news this week that Russia has invaded Ukraine has cast a long shadow. It feels trite to offer presentation advice when it feels like World War III is on the horizon.
But there is something I noticed in all the media coverage. For too long many of us have been using the wrong language when talking about Ukraine.
We’ve talked about “The Ukraine” and not “Ukraine.” I know now that to speak of the country with the word “the” is to refer to it as is it were a region and not an independent state. Similarly, Kiev, the up-until-now standard English language spelling for the capital, is the Russian transliteration of its name. Ukrainians spell it Kyiv. There’s even been a campaign by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, #KyivnotKiev running since 2018.
Name are important. Language is important.
How and what we name something has an impact on how we perceive it.
Many languages give nouns a gender – this is female, that is male. It’s not something we do in English though there are elements of it that sneak in (vehicles are often female for example). But even this small element, whether the noun is gendered male or female has repercussions.
A 2002 study discussed in Psychology Today revealed that:
“…the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.”
The gender of a noun may seem like it’s such a small thing that is hardly matters – but the difference is felt. The bridge is more likely to be described as “strong” in languages where it is gendered male than gendered female.
And so we must adapt our language. It’s not Kiev, it’s Kyiv. Pronounced, as I understand it from several articles as KEE-Yiv.
And it’s not The Ukraine, it’s Ukraine.
And it’s important we all remember that.