As you’ve been reading about the Russia-Ukraine crisis, you may have noticed a slight – but significant – discrepancy in how different media outlets spell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s name.
CNN uses the single “y” spelling for “Zelensky,” while Fox and MSNBC go with a double “y” for “Zelenskyy.” The New York Times and The Washington Post are both single “y” organizations. The Associated Press is a double “y” outlet. Reuters goes in a completely different direction, spelling his last name “Zelenskiy.”
So, what gives? And why?
The issue is primarily one of transliteration – from the Cyrillic alphabet used in Ukraine to the Latin alphabet we use in America. There simply isn’t a clear and definitive way to render the Ukrainian President’s last name through our alphabet, which leads to the variety of spellings you see.
Zelensky himself has it spelled “Zelenskyy” on his passport. In May 2019 his administration said he preferred that spelling when his name was transliterated from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet.
In June of that year, Peter Dickinson, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that in the early days of Zelensky’s time in office, his own administration had his name spelled differently on different official releases.
“As anyone who has ever covered Ukrainian affairs will confirm, spelling confusion surrounding the English-language versions of Ukrainian names is the rule rather than the exception. While some names such as Shevchenko lend themselves to flawless transliteration, many are ambiguous enough to open the floodgates for all manner of competing variations. This results in English-language coverage of Ukraine in both the media and academia that often employs a dizzying array of contradictory spellings while referring to the same people. For a country that is still struggling to shake off decades of international obscurity, this is particularly unhelpful.”
Dickinson added that the confusion over the spelling was part of a broader lack of understanding about Ukraine in the world community. “Spelling the English-language versions of Ukrainian names in a consistent manner will not prove decisive in the information war, but it would mark a minor step away from perceptions of the country as a perplexing and often incomprehensible place where even people’s names are open to interpretation,” Dickinson argued.
There is also some debate as to whether using the double “y” is an act of defiance against the Russians by Zelensky.
To understand that, consider how the capital of Ukraine is spelled. “Kyiv” is the transliteration in English of the Ukrainian spelling of the nation’s capital. “Kiev” is based on the Russian spelling of the city’s name.
“Kyiv means that you transliterate into English from the original Ukrainian name of the Ukrainian capital. By doing so you recognize the fact that it is Ukrainian. By not doing so you question the fact that it is a Ukrainian city,” Dr. Yuri Shevchuk, a member of the department of Slavic languages at Columbia University, told The Forward earlier this month.
What should have the final word in this spelling debate? What better place than Twitter, which Zelensky has used extensively during the Russian invasion to get out word of the situation on the ground? You can follow the Ukrainian President there: @zelenskyyua.