By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Moskva or Moscow? Zelenskyy or Zelensky? Looking into a few linguistic puzzles.

Moscow University. Or is that Moskva? Photo (cc) 2007 by annaspies.

This morning I thought I’d indulge in a little linguistic trivia arising from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. I’m hardly an expert — I took Russian for a few years in high school and college but never learned to speak it. (At one time I could read it — very, very slowly.) So take this with a few grains of salt.

First, the name of the Russian missile cruiser that was attacked and heavily damaged by Ukrainian forces has been identified as the Moskva. You may also know that Moskva is the Russian word for Moscow. In the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s Москва. So why do we Anglicize the name of the city but not the ship? It is one of the great mysteries.

Second, we are told that Volodymyr Zelenskyy prefers the English version of his name with two y’s on the end. The Associated Press has decided to go with that preference as well. But others, including The New York Times, spell it Zelensky, with one “y.”

I would argue that Zelensky with one “y” actually makes more sense. President Zelenskyy is not a native English speaker (although he’s pretty fluent), and went with Zelenskiy before settling on two “y’s.” The Cyrillic version of his name is closer to Zelenskee than Zelenskyy. You may have seen what it looks like on Zelenskyy’s Twitter profile: Зеленський. Proper transliteration should be based on pronunciation.

Finally, what’s up with Kyiv versus Kiev? Here, at least, I think we’ve all gotten it right. Kyiv is pronounced slightly differently, and the Ukrainians argue that Kiev is an artifact of Russian domination. So Kyiv it is.

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  1. Ilex

    I took Russian in middle school and remember just enough to have been wondering the same things! I also looked up the Cyrillic spelling of Mariupol to see if TV news people were pronouncing it correctly.

    On a lighter note, a few years ago I found myself behind a car with the license plate MOCKBA and was embarrassed when it took me a few miles for the meaning to click.

    I often wonder why we continue to use anglicized versions of foreign place names, unless we are specifically requested to change (Mumbai, Beijing). Although the choices are also political and reflect whose favor the US wishes to curry, as well.

  2. I took Russian in high school and college, too, but all I remember is how to sing “Moscow Nights” (“Podmoskovnye vechera”) in Russian. Thanks for clearing up the Zelensky spelling question. Here’s a recent column on the question of Dnepropetrovsk versus Dnipro:

  3. Lex

    Dan, my wife, a Germanist, also studied Russian in college. (She tells a great story about how she once confused the Russian words for “missile” and “[tennis] racket” in class. I’m kicking myself that I never asked her about Zelensky’s name; it’s the kind of thing she would adorably nerd out over.



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