A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian

Volodymyr Zelenskyy…? Volodimir Zelenskiy…? Vladimir Zelensky…!?

I'm a linguist, not a political scientist; I have nothing wise to say on the whys of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But I can address one thing I know many people have been unsure of: the y's of Ukrainian and Russian.

There are a lot of y's in names from both languages, but we're not always sure how many. Is the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or Volodimir Zelenskiy, or Vladimir Zelensky? And why is the capital of Ukraine "Kyiv" and not (anymore) "Kiev"? And what about all the other instances of y that you see in Ukrainian and Russian? Do you say them all the same? (No!) Do they all stand for the same letter in the original? (No!!!)

So why all the y's? The short answer is: They're duct tape. Ukrainian and Russian are written with versions of the Cyrillic alphabet, which has letters for things our Latin alphabet doesn't. When we need to represent Ukrainian and Russian words for English audiences, we use y as a catch-all to try to fix some of the differences.

In fact, we use y for things that are represented by no fewer than seven different letters in Ukrainian — and eight in Russian. Here's a run-down of the different Ukrainian and Russian letters we use y to help spell at least some of the time.

Absolutely not Ukrainian or Russian У

First off: Although Ukrainian and Russian have a letter that looks like y, that letter is literally never represented in the Latin alphabet with y. It's a u-sound. You see it in the name of Ukraine: Україна. It's just one of several letters in the Cyrillic alphabet that look like Latin letters they do not sound like. There are two more of those in Україна as well: the р is r, and the н is n.

Україна is not pronounced like "Ukraine," however. It sounds like "oo-kra-yee-na." Do you see that y there? That's thanks to one of the Ukrainian letters we use it to help spell ї.

Ukrainian Ї (but not І)

Ukrainian has some letters that Russian doesn't, and two of them are ї and і. Mercifully, і is usually rendered in our alphabet as i — it sounds like the "i" in "machine." But ї is said like the "yee" in "yee-haw." So Україна could be Ukrayina in direct transliteration. And its capital, Київ, would be … hmm, well, the thing is, there's that и character, and…

Ukrainian and Russian И and Й

…both Russian and Ukrainian have и, and it has nothing to do with N. It's common to transliterate it from Russian as i and from Ukrainian as y, but not all the time, because there's also й, which is usually also rendered as y.

So what's the difference, aside from the little hat? In Russian, и stands for the "ee" sound that is represented by і in Ukrainian. In Ukrainian, и stands for a sound more like the "i" in "hit." Meanwhile, in both languages, й stands for a sound like the "y" in "yes."

So back to: Київ. You'll be glad to know that К is K. But в is not B. It's v. So, since и is y and ї is yi, you might expect Київ to be Kyyiv. But that would be a bit much; we'd be tempted to strain our tongues holding the y. On the other hand, since it's Kyiv, many people just say it like "Keev," which isn't formally correct either. Its pronunciation in Ukrainian is like "ki-yiv" where "ki" is like the start of "kiss." The spelling Kiev, meanwhile, is from the Russian name for it, Киев. (We'll get back to е in a few moments).

Now, to add to the fun, both languages sometimes spell the "ee" sound at the end of words with ий. The Ukrainian government's official system for things like passports renders that as yy, so we commonly see the president of Ukraine, Володимир Зеленський, spelled Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with the first y representing и and the second y representing й. Sometimes you'll also see it as Zelenskiy, with the iy showing that it's two different letters, though the i is not standing for the letter usually represented by i because we just don't have enough letters to stand for all of them. And sometimes, for simplicity, you'll see it as Zelensky with just the one y (CNN, The Washington PostThe New York Times, and The Week have also standardized the use of a single y).

In Russian names, while и is very often transliterated as i, the usual transliteration of ий is just one y.This is partly because transliterations from Russian have historically been heavily influenced by French, which was a more important language for diplomacy in the time of the tsars. That's also why we write Tchaikovsky, rather than Chaykovsky, for the composer Пётр Ильич Чайковский.

Ukrainian and Russian ь

Oh, but speaking of that composer, you may remember that we typically write his full name as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. There's a trick in the Ilyich and a bigger trick in the Peter.

Second name first: You see a y in Ilyich where in the original, Ильич, there's ь. That ь — which is definitely not a b — sometimes gets rendered as y, but only sometimes. Most of the time, in fact, it's just left out of the English transliteration. The letter ь exists because Russian and Ukrainian have distinctions between "soft" and "hard" consonants. A "soft" consonant is palatalized, like Spanish ñ or Italian gn or gl, so the soft/hard distinction is sort of like the difference between "ll" as in "billion" and "ll" as in "ball."

That little ь indicates that the consonant before it is "soft." But often the consonant it affects is not followed by a vowel, as for instance in Луганськ, which we write as Luhansk and not Luhansyk, which we would say entirely wrong.

Russian Ё

Back to Tchaikovsky. We usually call him Peter, but his name was really the Russian equivalent, Пётр. That's typically rendered directly into English as Pyotr, which is then often badly mispronounced as "pie-oater" because we really do not know what to do with y since, let's be honest here, the Latin alphabet was not made for English or vice versa, and so even in English, y is duct tape a lot of the time.

Anyway, this letter ё, which exists in Russian but not Ukrainian, is said more or less like "yaw," so Пётр is really said like "pyawtr," with the "pyaw" said similar to "pew" but with "yaw" instead of "ew."

One big problem with ё is that it looks like е — which we're about to get to, don't worry — and so it's often written as e in English, which is terribly misleading. Another problem is that after certain consonants such as ч (ch), the "y" sound disappears. So Горбачёв is usually spelled as Gorbachev rather than, say, Gorbachyov, when in reality — because in Russian в is said like "f" instead of "v" when it's at the end of a word — it's said more like "Gorbachoff."

Ukrainian Є (but not Е), Russian Е (but not Э)

Has this all done you in yet? If your answer is no, it's time to talk about е — as in нет, which is Russian for "no," nyet.

The "ye" represents е. But nyet is not two syllables, "nee-et"; it's one. The е is like ё but with the sound of "yeh" rather than "yaw." And, as with ё, it drops the y after certain consonants, as in Чехов, Chekhov. And sometimes even when it doesn't drop the "y" sound, we don't write the y. It just depends on what will confuse English speakers less. So, for instance, we write Yeltsin (not Eltsin) for Ельцин, but we write Lenin (not Lyenin) for Ленин.

But that's all Russian. In Ukrainian, е doesn't sound like "yeh"; it sounds like the "e" in "bet." Russian has a letter for that sound, but it's э. Ukrainian doesn't have э, but it does have є — which is said "yeh" like Russian е. However, є is not as common as е, and often where you see it rendered in Latin letters it's just e. So, for instance, Сєвєродонецьк is usually written Severodonetsk, not Syevyerodonetsk.

Ukrainian and Russian Ю

If you liked the letters for "yee," "yeh," and "yaw," you'll be excited to learn that there are two more in the "y-" set. The first one sounds like "yoo" and looks like a ball and a stick, or maybe like a space ship, which is suitable when you see it in the name of Russia's first cosmonaut, Юрий Гагарин — that's Yuri Gagarin (although Юрий can also be rendered as Yuriy or Yury, because it's that ий again!). You also see Ю in the name of the first (and so far only) woman to be prime minister of Ukraine: Юлія Тимошенко, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Her name has the final "y-" vowel, too…

Ukrainian and Russian Я

Yes, it's я, that letter that people keep thinking is R. Well, it's not. Got ya! Literally: Got "ya." And since я is "ya," you could transliterate Юлія as Yuliya, but usually it's set as Yulia.

It's normal in Russian and Ukrainian to use я rather than an а after an і or и, but if we transliterate it as ya, English speakers tend to overpronounce it. Case in point: Russian borrowed the Italian word mafia and spelled it мафия. But when we transliterate that back from Russian, we like to write it mafiya (because that seems more Russian!), and the next thing you know, people are saying it "ma-feeyyyyy-ya" rather than just like Italian "mafia," as any Russian would. We know why by now: the letter y is almost like a nuclear option in English.

In fact, we can use nuclear examples to illustrate how я is transliterated inconsistently. You may have seen mention of Zaporizhzhia, the site of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. That's Запоріжжя. We could write it as Zaporizhzhya, but we generally don't.

But as a counter-example, take the now-abandoned town near Chernobyl, Припʼять: the Russian version is typically rendered as Pripyat, and the Ukrainian version as Prypyat or Pryp'yat' (the ' represents two opposite things in the latter version, neither of which most English speakers can get a grip handle on).

Russian ы

Then there's Chernobyl — or, as we render the Ukrainian name, Chornobyl. Yes indeed, there's one more trick up y's sleeve.

The Ukrainian name is Чорнобиль, which is said like "chor-naw-bill," but the Russian version is Чернобыль. While the Ч makes the y disappear before the e, there's this other letter: ы, which is not ь plus i. It's one letter, and it, too, is transliterated as y, but it stands for a sound we haven't dealt with yet, a sound that English doesn't have, and neither does Ukrainian. It's like something between the "i" in "bill" and the "u" in "bull": farther back in your mouth than the usual "short i," and maybe moving back even more as you say it.

So how do you know which letter a y stands for when you're seeing it in a transliteration of Russian or Ukrainian? Well … unless you happen to know some of one or both languages, you don't, really. If you're curious, you can probably look the word up on Wikipedia or Wiktionary. But however you say it in an English context, you're probably not going to be saying it exactly like in the original — sorry.

A word to the y's, though: Wherever you do see it, don't overdo it. And it never sounds like the "y" in "goodbye"!

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