08:08 AM EST Nov 26
To main page



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

This is a tale of two cities — or, rather, of two cities' names. And it reveals how we sometimes have a dickens of a time spelling foreign nouns in English.

The story begins many months ago, when the CBC was preparing to broadcast the Summer Olympics from Athens. Like a relay runner sprinting toward the baton pass, we glanced ahead to the next Games in 2006.

Our announcers and writers would inevitably refer to the host city in Italy. And it quickly became clear that a decision was needed for a smooth handover.

Some people were calling the 2006 Winter Games the Torino Olympics. Others opted for the Turin Olympics.

Neither was actually wrong, unless you happen to publish or broadcast in Italian. But which was right for us?

Torino, of course, is the name that Italians use for this ancient city in the country's northwest. Most of the English-speaking world, however, knows the community as Turin. The host city itself puts Torino on all official documents, including those issued in English, and some media outlets have adopted this term as well. A researcher with CBC Sports, Suzanne Blake, conducted a survey during the summer and found that NBC had chosen Torino while the BBC and Canadian Press had picked Turin. Our staff was divided.

When CBC.ca was asked for its views, I suggested the corporation use Turin, largely because it's the name most Canadians recognize — just as Venezia is called Venice. I also pointed out that we refer to the 1960 Olympics as the Rome, not the Roma, Games, even though the latter is the hometown choice.

In fact, if you look carefully at Canada's sole medal that year – a silver in men's rowing – you'll see ROMA MCMLX on the front.

But that inscription doesn't make the English label "Rome Olympics" wrong. Put another way, we must consider more than logos, posters and other printed material to determine the language we use for our audience.

A colleague who runs CBC Sports Online, Andrew Lundy, also voted for Turin — slyly noting that if the International Olympic Committee endorses Turin as the acceptable French version, this was a chance for linguistic unity in Canada.

In the end, the head of CBC News, Tony Burman, and the head of CBC Sports, Nancy Lee, made a final ruling for all the English service's journalists working in radio, television and on the web. We found ourselves on the road to Turin because that's the most familiar name.

Arrivederci confusion? Hello consistency? Well, not quite. In a subsequent note clarifying the ruling, CBC journalists were told to refer to the Olympics in Turin (the place) as the Torino Games (the event). Torino 2006 athletes, in other words, will compete in Turin.

The compromise means that both words will appear in our coverage, which may lead to a new sport at the Olympics: wrestling matches between writers and copy editors over which term is correct in any given context.


The second part of this tale takes us down a different path, from sports to politics and from Italy to Ukraine. Legend suggests that the community in question is named after a man known as Kyi, sometimes spelled Kie.

For more than five years, CBC.ca referred to the capital of Ukraine as Kyiv instead of Kiev. We adopted this version at the same time the Canadian Press switched to Kyiv. The reason was simple.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Ukraine revised some official English spellings to better match its country's language. The government said Kiev was based on a transliteration of Russian not of modern Ukrainian. It changed the city's name to Kyiv.

Ukraine knew that such rulings applied only to its own government agencies' English publications, so in the mid-1990s it asked the world to recognize the new transliterations as well.

Its first stop was the United Nations, and during the past few years the UN has been using Kyiv in its communiqués. Foreign Affairs in Ottawa also embraced the new spelling.

But most major media outlets in the West have stuck with Kiev, perhaps because it is better known, perhaps because they don't want foreign governments dictating English spelling, or maybe because they're worried that Kyiv looks like a typo. A few days ago, some colleagues at CBC-TV challenged CBC.ca's use of Kyiv. The "yi" stood out, as stories about alleged election fraud in Ukraine led newscasts and plastered the front pages of countless websites and newspapers.

Despite a common misconception, television writers do need to worry about spelling — at least the spelling of the words superimposed over pictures on the screen. And it turns out that our senior television journalists prefer the much more familiar version Kiev.

Within 24 hours, the inconsistency ended. CBC News (representing radio, television and the internet) ruled that all its journalists should spell Ukraine's capital Kiev. A pledge was also made to review the spelling in six months.

Turin and Kiev are both anglicized terms. But so is Kyiv. The big difference between these cities' names is that Italians use the Roman alphabet while Ukrainians and Russians use the Cyrillic. That means greater interpretation is required.

Transliterations are a grey area of language. Picking which Roman letters to use can be highly subjective. And once chosen, certain transliterations change over time while others remain fixed.

We still write Peter the Great not "Pyotr," for example, and Rachmaninoff instead of "Rakhmaninov."

And even though there's been a big shift to the Pinyin system for Chinese words during the past few decades — "Peking" became Beijing and "Mao Tse-tung" turned into Mao ZedongConfucius has not become "Kongfuzi." Instead, the traditional Latinized version of K'ung Fu-tzu ("Kong the Master") remains the same: Confucius.

Confusing? For some CBC.ca readers, Kiev will be a welcome relief. They�ll probably assume that we know how to spell again because this combination of letters is familiar.

For others, especially Ukrainians who eschew Russian influence and who applauded our use of Kyiv, the switch to Kiev will be a disappointment.

Within hours, in fact, we got an e-mail complaint from a Canadian now living in Britain:

I find it hard to understand why you still refer to the capital of Ukraine by its incorrect, Russophiled name of �Kiev,� instead of its correct, Ukrainian name of "Kyiv."

Ukrainians wish to throw off the imperialist Russian-promoted references of being only a sub-region implied by the incorrect usage of "the Ukraine," instead promoting the correct independent state reference of "Ukraine." So, too, do they wish the capital to be properly referred to as "Kyiv."

Kindly be mindful of avoiding slipping into using Russophiled terminology, and being victims of old imperialist Russian propaganda.

The letter is a reminder that our readers are attentive, and that their passion for language can be as strong as spicy Chicken Kiev.

(Nov. 26, 2004)

top | other articles | letters