Lviv or Lvov or both? Place-names and (Language) Politics

By Alexandra Petrulevich

Today, 25 February 2022, the day after Russia launched massive invasion of Ukraine, it is immensely difficult to think about anything else or engage in any other activity than following live broadcasts, news and analyses of all sorts and checking up on Ukrainian friends and their families. Official media channels in Sweden (and the rest of Europe) and Russia present strikingly different narratives about the war, so different that I sometimes wonder if they are describing the same chain of events.

The flow of audio and visual information I digested these past two days contains lots of place-names; there are maps of Ukraine with all the major cities marked, mentions of the journalists’ or interview persons’ whereabouts as well as lists of air strikes targets and casualties. The name use across the two mediaverses, the Swedish/European and the Russian one, differs as well; in the West, the official Ukrainian names in transliterated form are preferred in most cases, Lviv (Львів), Kharkiv (Харків), Kyiv (Київ) and Ivano-Frankivsk (Івано-Франківськ), while Russian media make use of Russian equivalents Львов (Lvov), Харькoв (Kharkov), Киев (Kiev) and Ивaно-Франковск (Ivano-Frankovsk). In Sweden, there are however exceptions: those Russian names that have a long tradition in the Swedish language such as for instance Kiev, Odessa and Tjernobyl are used alongside transliterations of Ukrainian names (1). What is the status of the names scientifically and politically?

Exonyms and endonyms

The situation of one place bearing multiple names is generally very common and definitely a rule rather than exception in language contact areas. Historically prominent places tend to have multiple parallel names, for instance, Vienna, Vienne, Vena, Wiedeń, Víden, Villaco etc. used to refer to the capital of Austria, Wien, in different European languages. A typical explanation for such parallelism is that names are usually loaned in adapted form, for instance, due to pronunciation difficulties. In other words, when loaned, the name undergoes changes in accordance with the rules of the recipient language system. Moreover, the adaptations in question can be based both on the oral and written forms of the name, the English Warsaw for Warszawa being an example of the latter.

The names of geographical features in languages other than the official language(s) spoken in the area where the feature is situated are called exonyms (2). Among the examples listed in this section, Warsaw, Vienna, Vienne, Vena, Wiedeń, Víden, and Villaco qualify under the definition. The “opposite” of exonyms are called endonyms, defined as the names of places and other features in the official language of the area, for instance Wien in German and Warszawa in Polish.

The leading international body working for standardization of place-names worldwide, the United Nations’ Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), has issued a policy recommending the UN’s member states to promote the use of endonyms and minimize the use of exonyms internationally (2).

Endonyms in practice

In theory, it is a pretty straightforward recommendation. In practice, figuring out the status of the different names can give a slight headache. Most states are multilingual today and the languages spoken within their borders enjoy different rights.

In Finland, both the Finnish Helsinki and the Swedish Helsingfors are endonyms because both languages have an official status. Thus, both forms can be used internationally according to UNGEGN’s recommendation mentioned above. However, the Finnish endonym Helsinki is preferred in most international contexts.

Another typical complication concerns names in minority languages and indigenous languages. There is only one official language in Sweden, Swedish; however, there are no less than five minority languages in the country, Finnish, Sami, Romani, Yiddish, and Meänkieli. Moreover, place-names in Sami, Meänkieli, and Finnish are protected by the Swedish cultural heritage law and are to be included on road signs and maps in multilingual areas.

But what is the status of names in a minority language in the exonym vs. endonym debate? There has been a push to give the names in official minority languages an endonym status (3: 21, footnote 4: “differing in its form from the name used in an official or well-established language of that area”), but the official UNGEGN definition in the Glossary of Terms for the Standardization of Geographical Names does not yet unambiguously accommodate such an interpretation (2).

The geodata and name metadata associated with Lviv, Ukraine, in the World Historical gazetteer

Languages in Ukraine

According to the constitution, Ukrainian is the only official language of the sovereign state of Ukraine (4, article 10). Russian – alongside other non-specified minority languages – is guaranteed protection and free use. Historically, Ukraine was divided between Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire; the imperialist fear of Ukrainian independence led to Russia prohibiting publication of Ukrainian in the latter half of the eighteenth century (5).

It is important to acknowledge that Ukraine was (and still is, although another palette of spoken languages is in place) a highly multicultural society where Polish, German, Romanian, Hungarian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Armenian etc. were spoken alongside Ukrainian and Russian. For this reason, there are many more historical names of Ukrainian cities to choose from. For instance, the city of Lviv – Lvov in Russian – used to be called Lemberg in German and is still referred to as Lwów in Polish (see the figure from the World Historical Gazetter).

Transition to Ukraine endonyms

So, Lviv or Lvov or both? The only conclusion to be drawn from the above is that transliterations of Ukrainian names should be used in other languages according to the aforementioned UN’s place-name policy recommendation. Lviv, then.

The Swedish language council Språkrådet still sees both the exonym Kiev and the Swedish transliteration of the Ukrainian name Kyjiv (the form Kyiv above is an English transliteration) as equivalents because a sudden change from the established name to a new one might complicate readers’ or listeners’ understanding. However, the recommendation is to adopt the Ukrainian transliteration “when the time is ripe” (1).

In the light of the current events when Russian bombs are falling all over Ukraine, the transition towards Ukrainian endonyms will most likely accelerate dramatically.

Updated March 3rd 2022


  2. Glossary of Terms for the Standardization of Geographical Names (Revised)
  3. Revision proposed by a Joint Meeting on Geographical Names, Prague 2003, referred to in Raukko, Jarno, A linguistic classification of exonyms, in: Jordan, Peter, Milan Orožen Adamič & Paul Woodman (eds.) Exonyms and the International Standardisation of Geographical Names: Approaches towards the Resolution of an Apparent Contradiction (Wiener Osteuropa Studien, 2007).
  4. The Constitution of Ukraine
  5. Plokhy, Serhii, 2017: The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. New York: Basic Books.

The unfiltered background data of the Icelandic place-name archive

by Birna Lárusdóttir

Ongoing work at the place-name archive

The Icelandic place-name archive is currently being reorganized and registered into a database.  The bulk of the collection dates from the 1940s to the 1980s. It consists of several categories or layers. Finished and edited place-name descriptions are the most accessible layer, where the toponomy appears as a part of a holistic landscape description which enables readers to travel through the landscape in their mind and get a fuller picture of the place names and their meanings in context. 

A map of Fagurey, one of the islands of Breiðafjörður, W-Iceland. Photo: Birna Lárusdóttir.

Most of these complete descriptions are now accessible online at Behind these descriptions lies a layer of data which remains largely unexplored but sheds light on the collection and how it was shaped. This layer consists of background data such as complete manuscripts, lists of names, letters from informants to the staff of the archive (earlier: The Icelandic Place-Name Institute), comments on existing descriptions and hand-drawn maps.

An example of files from one district, V-Eyjafjallahreppur, S-Iceland. Photo: Birna Lárusdóttir.

A recording from 1970

The archive contains many hidden gems which give a glimpse into the dynamics and the social context of both individual names and whole registers. A personal favorite is a conversation recorded in 1970 between three brothers who all grew up on the same farm, Hæll in Gnúpverjahreppur in the south of Iceland.

Hæll is a farm rich in family traditions, where many generations of the same family had lived before them. Their aim is to review an older place-name register, most likely from the 1920s, which had been written by an avid collector with no personal connection to their farm. One brother reads the text out loud, while the others provide an endless stream of commentary: , já-já, jú-jú, yes, I remember, I don’t think so, we didn’t really use that name, I would not describe it this way. Sometimes they pause to discuss individual names, locations, events, the time-depth of the text and even the people behind the names. Who could possibly have bestowed them? Why would someone mention a name they have never heard of? Who might the collector have interrogated at the time of the collection?

A page from the transcribed interview from 1970. Photo: Birna Lárusdóttir.

The brothers add a few missing names and sometimes speculate about whether they are appropriate or not for an official register. Among them are Harðlífi (‘Constipation’) for part of an irrigation ditch and Bunuvellir (‘Running Fields’), named by a boy who was fetching some  cows with  “the runs” (I.e., diarrhea). One brother rather dislikes a more innocent name, Miðhús (‘Midhouse’), which according to him is “such a young name that he can only just accept it.”

The name Mígandaskarð (‘Pisser’s Gully’) is also referred to as Smjörvörðuskarð (‘Butter Cairn Gully’) in the old register, to which they all vocally object. This sparks speculation on the collector’s source. After a short debate they agree that it must have been a worker at the farm named Eiríkur, who was known for having his own opinions on place names and was possibly trying to be polite in the case of Smjörvörðuskarð.

From recording to written register

In the above case the main facts of the relatively informal chat were combined into an updated version of the register a few years later by a staff member at the Place Name Institute. It mentions landscape changes and reasons for names falling out of use.  Harðlífi is claimed to be rarely used, Bunuvellir is said to stem from a “minor incident” (not explaining the origin) and Miðhús is only mentioned in a footnote, apparently as a temporary name.  Mígandaskarð is, however, stated to be the only correct version of the name according to the brothers.

This is a great example of how the place-name register can be a very dynamic document and how people think twice before publishing something officially.