Why Spelling Matters

One thing I’ve been noticing as I follow the Ukraine war is the varied spelling of the beautiful Black Sea city of Odesa. I’ve seen it spelled Odessa and Oddessa. Which is the correct spelling? Turns out that Odessa is the Russian spelling and Odesa, with one s, is the Ukrainian spelling. 

My grandfather was killed in Zhytomyr, in northwest Ukraine. It's another place that has had various spellings. The Germans wrote Shitomir (see Karl Stump’s extensive maps). I referred to it as Zhitomir which I later learned was the Russian spelling and now, the correct Ukrainian spelling is, Zhytomyr. 

Stumpp's maps later helped the Nazis with their killing projects. The man himself was never charged in connection with the mass killings made possible with the help of his detailed maps.

Back to the issues of spelling. As I edit my book set in Soviet and Nazi times dealing with conflicted areas, spelling pops up again and again.  Perhaps it’s the same issue we have with our British vs. American spellings of words with the o or ou or l or ll spellings. Thankfully, we’re not at war with either the British or  the Americans and spelling is just spelling.

Karl Stumpp: Mapped German
settlements in Russia and Ukraine
It’s not the Russian language that’s wrong. What is wrong is that the Russian government feels threatened by the Ukrainian language. Many Ukrainians, especially in the eastern part of the country, are fluent in Russian while few Russians ever learn Ukrainian. 

Before the invasion, I'd been working on a children’s picture book with a friend living near the Volga in Samara. We were going to make the book bilingual, Russian and English. Making it trilingual was not going to happen. After all, my Russian friend had asked, who would read a Ukrainian picture book in Russia? That project, by the way, is now on indefinite hold. 

While language is a mere tool of communication, it's also quite political and easily weaponized. Indigenous languages in Canada were usurped by the English which has become an almost universal language. Holding tight to our identity by insisting on proper spelling is a way to regain self-respect. And only by having self-respect can we expect respect in return. 

I grew up ashamed of my often butchered name. Gabby. You're a Gabby? Or is that Gaby? With one b? Or Gabi? With an i?  Besides, how come you’re so quiet, if you’re gabby? For a few years, I insisted on Gabriele. How many ways can that be mis-pronounced? And how many times did others misspell it? Banks, schools, government IDs.  Gabrielle. Gabriel. Gabriella. Finally, I settled on Gabe. It’s a compromise for all the English-only speakers out there. 

Never mind my middle name. Ulrike. How many Ulrikes (3 syllables) do you know?  I was named after a set of twins and I’ve always been grateful that Gabriele (pronounced in German with 4 syllables) was at least born before poor Ulrike. 

So yeah, I get it. Odesa. One s. Okay?


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