“In Ukraine”?

Mar 22, 2010 by

Recently, BBC Russian News Forum discussed the issue of how to say “in Ukraine” — in Russian. Generally, one of two prepositions can be used in Russian with names of places: na (literally, ‘on’) or v (literally, ‘in’). So, is it ‘in Ukraine’ or ‘on Ukraine’?

Although this may seem such a trivial issue, the reason it generated so much discussion is because it raises several important questions: what is the linguistic norm and who defines it? is language always logical? and how a language may affect politics and vice versa.

The traditional Russian norm in this case is na Ukraine (literally, ‘on Ukraine’); note that in Ukrainian this is v Ukraini. People arguing in support of changing the Russian usage/norm to v Ukraine (literally, ‘in Ukraine’) either cite the Ukrainian norm or the idea that using na equals treating Ukraine as more peripheral a place than it deserves to be. Let’s consider each of these arguments in turn.

Who defines the norm? Whether it is linguists/grammarians/lexicographers or the popular usage that defines linguistic norm, it is unquestionably members of the relevant linguistic group who set the norm for any given language. For example, English speakers do not have a say in how the French should pronounce/speak/write their language, nor vice versa. So what role can the Ukrainian language norm play in defining the Russian language norm? The answer is none.

What makes Ukraine peripheral? The word Ukraine comes from the East Slavic (the family of which both Russian and Ukraine are members) root for ‘edge, margin’. In my opinion, what preposition is used with it has no bearing on whether it appears marginal in the minds of some speakers.

The v-na usage in Russian is determined lexically (or idiomatically), meaning that the pairing of nouns with one or the other of the two prepositions is not subject to definite rules. There are some subpatterns, for example with names of islands and peninsulas na ‘on’ is typically used: na Madagaskare (lit. ‘on Madagascar’, na Kube (lit. ‘on Cuba’), na Aljaske (lit. ‘on Alaska’). Yet, this “rule” is not without exceptions: for example, v Krymu (lit. ‘in Crimea’). With words other than toponyms, the use is lexical as well. The best minimal pair I can think of is: v teni (lit. ‘in shade’), but na solnce (lit. ‘on sun’, meaning ‘in the sunny area, not covered by shade’). Go figure why!

But language is not always logical: for example, what’s the logic behind treating the Russian word mertvec ‘cadaver’ as grammatically animate? Or treating the Russian stul ‘chair’ as masculine, taburetka ‘stool’ as feminine and kreslo ‘arm-chair’ as neuter? And Russian is not the only language full of such illogical things. Famously, in English we drive on parkways and park on driveways, the English word bathing trunks (which denotes a single object) is plural, while bikini (denoting two separate objects) is singular. But all this makes languages fun, doesn’t it?

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