The spelling of the name of Ukraine’s president is likely to be different on every website you read. The BBC and AFP has his name down as ‘Zelensky’, the Guardian and Reuters have it as ‘Zelenskiy’, while Sky and Al Jazeera are calling him Zelenskyy. (Here on AS USA we go with Zelenskyy). In Ukrainian it’s written: Зеленський.
It’s not often that a leader of a nation can have so many different versions of their name. Which is the correct spelling? President Volodymyr actually told the press way back in May 2019 how his name was spelt, but the confusion gives an insight into the complexity the Ukrainian language, a problem exacerbated by political tensions that have manifested into the war in the country.
So how is the Ukrainian president’s name spelt?
According to the man himself: Zelenskyy. But this wasn’t always the case.
Confusion stems from how Zelenskyy used to spell his name. He grew up speaking Russian, with the Latin spelling of his name from Russian being ‘Zelenskiy.’ In fact, it took until December 2018 for him to act in Ukrainian for the first time, everything prior was in Russian.
However, Zelenskyy made his political image out of a break from the old Ukrainian hierarchy of power, one that had strong links to Russia. The two had been united for hundreds of years until 1991. Thus, it would make sense to mark a break with the traditional power structures in Ukraine with a new, ostensibly Ukrainian-spelling English name to show this to the English-speaking world.
Why is the spelling of Zelenskyy’s name important?
As alluded to, Ukraine has been trying to make its mark on the world by explaining what it isn’t: Russian. Something that has been prominent in the last week of the war is how English language media has also been adapting with the changing view of Ukraine with a key part of this being spelling.
One language switch that readers may have noticed is the change of spelling from ‘Kiev’ to ‘Kyiv’, with the former being the Russian language translation of Київ. Other cities have been changed, ‘Kharkov’ has become ‘Kharkiv‘ as another example.
What these changes in language represent is a fundamental shift in the way Ukraine is portrayed internationally. Far from being a Russian stooge as their Belorussian neighbours are, the English language spellings mark the country as distinctly Ukrainian on the international stage.
Many older readers may acknowledge an old way of speaking of the country as ‘The Ukraine,’ in terms of a Cold War territory, and this slight change further shows the tweaks that have been making Ukraine and its language unique and, perhaps more importantly, distinct from Russian or Soviet ideas of the land.
The war has the eyes of the world’s media fixed firmly upon Ukraine. It will be no consolation for a people fighting for survival, but acknowledgment from the world that, finally, Ukraine is not discussed in terms of Russian choosing, will be a source of pride from Ukrainians upon the termination of the war.