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Recently, Volodymyr Zelensky (for this question, I will use the shorter version of his name), the president of Ukraine, has been in the news frequently due to the war in his country.

However, news sources seem split on how his name is spelled. It is transliterated from Ukrainian, which is not a language based in English letters, and there appears to be confusion on the correct result. The New York Times uses the version with one y, Zelensky, while other sources, such as Fox News and Business Insider prefer using two y's.

To complicate matters further, on social media, Zelensky has himself used the transliteration Zelenskiy with an extra i. Wikipedia claims that it is transliterated as Zelenskyy, but it can also be Zelensky. If I reference him in my writing, which spelling should I use, and is there a 'correct' spelling of his name?

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    I do not believe that there is a generally agreed-on transliteration system for Ukrainian, which explains why there is no "correct" spelling of his name. (There is for some other languages, like Japanese and Mandarin.) Apr 16 at 13:40
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    When a name that has its origins in a language other than English is imported into English texts, it becomes a part of English language. The question is thus very much within the scope of this site, and should not be closed.
    – jsw29
    Apr 16 at 15:59
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    @David I’m voting to reöpen this question because historically our site has always allowed questions about romanizations into English of names and loanwords originally written in a different ‘alphabet’ (writing system) than English uses, including but not limited to Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Bulgarian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian.
    – tchrist
    Apr 16 at 17:02
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    @Anton It’s no more nonsensical than asking what the correct English word is for names like Roma or Sevilla, Genève or München, España or Deutschland, Praha or Warszawa, Θεσσαλονίκη or Αθήνα, Санкт-Петербург or Київ, יְרוּשָׁלַיִם or بَغْدَاد ا, تهران or لرياض, 西安 or नेपाल. And sure, deciding what to do with Володимир Олександрович Зеленський is more like figuring out what Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson or Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский or معمر محمد ابو منيار القذافي should be called in English, but these names all have distinct English versions, so people would like to know what those are.
    – tchrist
    Apr 17 at 21:17
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    @Anton Yes, we certainly are. People want to know the English word for something. They deserve to be told that. I can't believe you think this is somehow off-topic. Please take your complaint to meta.
    – tchrist
    Apr 18 at 2:19

6 Answers 6

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is there a 'correct' spelling of his name?

In practice, no one spelling of the Ukrainian president's name in English is treated by all as the single 'correct' spelling. You'll need to make a choice between them using your own judgement. The good news is that it doesn't seem to be a fraught issue: I can't find evidence that anyone cares very much about which spelling is used. As you've already observed, different mainstream English news sources use different spellings.

Apparently, "Zelenskyy" is what appears in his passport (Ukrainian passports are in Ukrainian and English). So I guess that makes it the official English spelling of his name in a legal sense.

However, the official status of this spelling doesn't seem to have much if any significance in terms of how to refer to the president as a public figure.

The following tweet from BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher gives what may be a common reason for not using the single Y spelling:

I don’t think we (BBC) are going to go for the double - Y - it just confuses our audience.

7:07 AM · Jun 10, 2019

Iuliia Mendel, then press secretary in Zelensky's administration, replied as follows:

Dear colleagues, this is the official form of the last name that the President has in his passport. This was decided by the passport service of Ukraine. The President won’t be offended if BBC standards assume different transliteration

7:13 AM · Jun 10, 2019

These tweeets are quoted in "How many Y’s are in Volodymyr Zelensky(y)’s name?", by Hanna Kozlowska (Quartz, September 25, 2019) who writes:

There’s seemingly no political implication to the spelling, unlike the differences between “Kyiv” and “Kiev” and “Ukraine” and “The Ukraine.”

The reason for the spelling with -yy

The spelling in the Cyrillic alphabet is Зеленський; -yy is a transliteration of the last two letters.

The transliteration of й

The final letter, й, represents the palatal glide /j/ in Ukrainian as well as in other languages written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The same sound (more or less) occurs in English, as in the start of the word yellow, but English does not allow it to occur at the ends of words. (Alternatively, if English diphthongs such as the /aɪ/ sound of eye or the /oɪ/ sound of boy are interpreted as ending in /j/, English only allows /j/ to come at the end of a word after a few specific vowel sounds.)

Although "y" is a natural way to represent this sound for an English speaker, it can also be represented as "i". In fact, from what I can tell, in the Ukrainian National system (as presented by Wikipedia) the word-final transliteration of "й" ought to be "i". That would give the romanization "Zelenskyi". I'm not sure why this wasn't used for his passport. "Zelenskyi" seems to occur in some news sources, but not as often as "Zelensky", "Zelenskyy" or ""Zelenskiy".

The transliteration of и

The second-to-last letter, и, represents a vowel sound. The letter и is used differently in Ukrainian and Russian. In some cases, this may be relevant to the social implications of how to render it in the Latin alphabet. But in the case of Zelensky's name, it doesn't seem to matter.

The Ukrainian alphabet has three letters representing "i-like" vowel sounds: І-і, Ї-ї and И-и. There's also Й-й, which represents the corresponding consonant/semivowel /j/.

Ї-ї represents a semivowel-vowel sequence /ji/, І-і represents /i/, and И-и represents /ɪ/. (There is an additional complication in how these letters affect palatalization of preceding consonants—І-і can cause palatalization, И-и can't.)

Since І-і and И-и represent different vowel sounds of Ukrainian, it may be thought useful to differentiate them in a transliteration. There's no incredibly obvious way to represent a distinction between the vowel sounds /i/ and /ɪ/ in the Latin alphabet, but using I and Y respectively is a somewhat sensible choice, although when Y is also used for /j/, this creates an unfortunate collision between the representations of /j/ and /ɪ/.

The Russian alphabet does not use the letter І-і. In Russian, И-и represents [i] (except for when it's predictably replaced by [ɨ] after some consonants). So the letter sequence "ки" is regularly transliterated as "ki" when it occurs in Russian, as in Киев, transliterated Kiev, while the same letter sequence in the Ukrainian name Київ is typically transliterated as "ky", giving us the spelling "Kyiv" (which has become increasingly preferred in recent English sources).

You can find some discussion of phonetics of the Ukrainian и sound in the Language Log article "Pronouncing Kiev / Kyiv" (Mark Liberman, November 16, 2019 @ 3:28 pm).

Note that this features a quotation that has a Latin-alphabet transcription of the similar name Зілинський as "Zilyns'kyj".

It looks like the spelling "Zelenskiy" has been used for his Instagram. The use of this transliteration is not too surprising given that his first language is Russian (like many Ukrainians) and that, as Peter Shor said in a comment, there is no single transliteration system for Ukrainian in any case (so "Zelenskiy" might plausibly be used to represent the Ukrainian as well as the Russian pronunciation of the name).

The spelling with single -y

Despite the above, the spelling "Zelensky" with a single Y is common. I think this is most likely due to anglicization: many English words end in a single -y, such as happy, very, sunny, while it's alien to the English language for a word to end in a double -yy sequence. (The sequence -iy at the end of a word is equally alien to English eyes, and it's likewise common to use single -y in English spellings of Russian names that end in -ий, such as Dmitry for Дмитрий.)

While Zelenskyy is somewhat closer to being a letter-by-letter transliteration of Cyrillic Зеленський (it isn't fully letter-by-letter, as it doesn't transcribe the soft sign ь and it doesn't differentiate the distinct Cyrillic letters и and й), it doesn't do any better than Zelensky at indicating the pronunciation of the name to an English speaker.

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    (+1) Thank you, this is very in-depth (and I learned a lot about Ukrainian from this answer) but which spelling would you advise would be a better choice when writing to a politically-minded audience?
    – Joe Kerr
    Apr 16 at 23:22
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    @JoeKerr: There really doesn't seem to be much difference. While writing this answer, I came to prefer "Zelensky" since it's shorter, easier to the eye for an English speaker, and doesn't appear likely to be offensive or objectionable (from what I can tell, it seems likely that he himself probably wasn't too involved in choosing the "yy" spelling).
    – herisson
    Apr 16 at 23:26
  • I wouldn't use media as an argument that spelling from passport is not important. That spelling is very important for an ordinary Ukrainian citizens when they cross an international border or issue an official document, you can be simply refused to be acknowledge as a right person if your spelling is different. Within Ukraine itself it indeed was not important in my experience, at least till 2014.
    – klm123
    Apr 17 at 0:38
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    @klm123: what I was trying to express by "[it] doesn't seem to have much if any significance in terms of how to refer to the president as a public figure" is that in a context like a news article or essay, where nothing official is going on, that kind of consideration won't arise. In an official context, the official spelling of someone's name can certainly be important!
    – herisson
    Apr 17 at 0:47
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    I have selected this as the correct answer as it gives the most background and information about exactly why there is not a true correct spelling of the name. It also appears as if the community believes that this is the most accurate. (based on the number of upvotes)
    – Joe Kerr
    Apr 17 at 13:35
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The Ukrainian spelling is Зеленський, and the final й does have a different sound from the и immediately before it. It's not actually a different syllable, more a final relaxation; Wikipedia has IPA [zeˈlɛnʲsʲkɪj]. It has no equivalent in English.

To transliterate as Zelensky or Zelenski takes off the final relaxation, and Zelenskyy or Zelenskiy does indicate "something else is going on here".

Because English has no equivalent, there is no way of indicating what the Ukrainian pronunciation is doing, so any representation must be an approximation. What that approximation should be is a matter of opinion — or maybe house style.

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    If we knew that Zelensky himself uses one particular transliteration of his name, shouldn't we accept that as the (or at least a) "correct" one?
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 16 at 14:06
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    Well, WeatherVane has pointed to Twitter; OP has pointed to "social media". Those use -skiy or -skyy which are presumably each a correct version, which is what I said in my answer: they indicate something else is going on. Either of those is a closer approximation than -ski or -sky.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 16 at 14:36
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    It is true that 'any representation must be an approximation', but is the -yy spelling a reasonable approximation? Does a typical English speaker have any idea how to even try to pronounce -yy?
    – jsw29
    Apr 16 at 16:06
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    @jsw29 I think it does well at what the answer suggests, indicating that "something else is going on here". It will require the as-yet-unfamiliar reader to take that cue and perform further investigation, for sure. Apr 18 at 18:06
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    @DjinTonic Words ending in -yy do not occur in English. At all, ever. So, using -yy is also "incorrect"
    – user253751
    Apr 19 at 15:50
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Restricting the scope of this question to English Usage — as translation from a non-Roman character system has nothing to do with the English Language — and given there is no historical literary precedent for this name (at least not one that is widely known)*, the most sensible thing would seem to be:

  • Go with the majority, especially in one’s own country.

  • Given an even split, go with the spelling that is pronouncable in English

After a quick web survey of usage, I came up with the following:

Country Newspapers TV Channels
UK Zelensky: London Times, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Independent, The Scotsman Zelensky: BBC
"" Zelenskiy: The Guardian Zelenskyy: ITV, Sky News
US Zelensky: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Zelenskyy: CBS, NBC
Australia Zelensky: The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald Zelenskyy: ABC

Conclusion

All the newspapers, with the exception of The Guardian, use Zelensky. All TV channels, with the exception of the BBC (which uses Zelensky), use Zelenskyy.

As newspapers are the home of print, and there are no words in English with a double y, the choice is clear — use Zelensky (unless you want to make some sort of statement).

  • Footnote

A Google books ngram to 2019 shows Zelensky >> Zelenskiy, with no hits for Zelenskyy. (And yes, these are surnames.) I rest my case.

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    I think it's worth pointing out that media outlets with the same owners might plausibly align on policies like spelling. The Times, the WSJ and The Australian (News Corp) could fall into this category. So could Sky and NBC (Comcast), though that's less likely. Apr 18 at 4:03
  • @TimPederick — I had thought of this and also the possibility of some “agreement” I was not aware of, like that which must underlie the strange “Kyiv” thing. However usage is usage, and the reasons behind change a different question.
    – David
    Apr 18 at 6:59
  • True enough. I'm just cautious in general about usage surveys where multiple "votes" might be coming from the same source. I don't think it's an issue in this case, though, or at least not prominently enough to affect your answer! Apr 18 at 8:02
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A little linguistics first -- Ukrainian, along with Russian, Byelorussian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Slovenian, Croatian, and Bulgarian, are Slavic languages, which split apart only about a millennium ago, so they still have a lot of characteristics in common, like Romance languages but much much more so.

One of the things they almost all have in common is Palatalization. That mouthful just means "make consonants palatal" -- changing their pronunciation by moving the tongue toward the palate at the end of the consonant, like the initial consonants of beauty, cue, or few. English has very few palatalized consonants, and they're predictable, so we don't notice them.

Slavic languages, however, usually have a complete set of palatalized consonants and a complete set of non-palatalized consonants. So there's a plain phoneme /p/ and a palatalized phoneme /p,/. /p,at/ is a man's name, but /pat/ is not the same word. And this is true for virtually all consonants. That's a lot of consonants, and in Slavic languages using Roman alphabets like Czech or Polish, one sees lots of modified consonants with marks over them; these are typically palatalized versions of the plain consonants without marks.

But in Slavic languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet like Russian or Ukrainian, there's a dodge to keep from going mad with palatalization -- instead of two sets of 20+ consonants, they have two sets of about 5 vowels, one following palatalized consonants, one following non-palatalized. And that's where the problem comes from.

President Зеленський has all palatalized consonants - the З (Z), the л (L), and the K are all palatalized. It would be transliterated with [j] (English /y/) after each one of them. In Ukrainian.

In English, most speakers wouldn't hear the difference, and since English spelling doesn't even represent English pronunciation, there's no reason why it should represent Ukrainian better. The normal American pronunciation is innocent of palatalization, and Ys. The spelling can do no better than Zelensky; if you wanna be patriotic or exotic, use a double final Y, since that represents Ukrainian spelling, a bit.

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    In the spelling "Zelenskyy", the first "y" is a transliteration of the letter и, and the second is a transliteration of the letter й. Neither "y" represents consonant palatalization.
    – herisson
    Apr 16 at 16:23
  • The occurrence and spelling of palatalized consonants differ among different Slavic languages. The sources I've read say that in the Ukrainian alphabet, the vowel letters е and и do not palatalize a preceding consonant. A pronunciation with all palatalized consonants would only be expected if the name were spelled Зєлєнській.
    – herisson
    Apr 16 at 18:00
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The President of Ukraine's Twitter account spells his name in the tag as

@ZelenskyyUa

Removing the tag '@' and the top level Ukraine internet domain 'Ua' leaves

Zelenskyy

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  • This makes sense, but as he is the President of Ukraine, does Zelensky(y) manage his own account, or is this the work of someone who works on his staff? (It is still likely correct, but there is a difference between Zelensky(y) deciding that his name is spelled this way or someone who works for him choosing that account name.
    – Joe Kerr
    Apr 16 at 23:19
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    @JoeKerr perhaps, and if English speakers can't pronounce his name, gov.ua might not care much how the spelling is anglicised. Apr 16 at 23:22
  • Good point. Yet they must've chosen that spelling for a reason... I'm just musing here though.
    – Joe Kerr
    Apr 16 at 23:27
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    On the other hand, his Instagram account uses "Zelenskiy". But also the official Government site of the President uses "Zelenskyy".
    – wjandrea
    Apr 16 at 23:50
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From the Facebook page of the Ukrainian Embassy in London, a post from Andrij Sybiha head of the Office of the President of Ukraine (9th April 2022).

Right now Boris Johnson's visit to Kiev began with a tet-a-tet meeting with President Zelensky.

Let's be frank, Andrij Sybiha is not going to get it wrong.

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    I wouldn't be too sure of that — given that it doesn't look like Andry spelled tête-à-tête very well either. :)
    – tchrist
    Apr 17 at 1:09
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    He's paid to be fluent in English, not French ;)
    – Greybeard
    Apr 17 at 16:30
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    But it's part of an English sentence.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 19 at 9:22

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