“In the Ukraine”? “In Ukraine”? “On Ukraine”?—Clarifying the Issue

Jun 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in March 2014]

to_Ukraine[Thanks to Rebecca Starr and Matt Adams for a helpful discussion]

A recent article in The Washington Post by Katie Zezima asked whether the country should be referred to as “the Ukraine” or simply “Ukraine”, without the definite article. Recent usage of the article with the country’s name by several American politicians apparently raised some ire on the part of certain Ukrainian pundits. Former US ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. explains:

“I don’t want to say it’s derogatory, but it’s putting it in a subordinate position. When you talk about ‘the Ukraine’, that suggests that you really don’t think that Ukraine is a sovereign independent country.”

The Washington Post article also quotes Michael Flier, a professor of Ukrainian philology at Harvard University, as providing a similar explanation. I am, however, frankly surprised to see a Slavic linguist giving credence to such nonsense.

It is time for me to dispel some myths about this issue. First, note that some differences in toponym usage or pronunciation correlate with one’s political views. Take, for example, the pronunciation of the second vowel in the country name Iraq: it can be pronounced either as in father or as in fat. As discovered by Stanford linguistics graduate students Lauren Hall-Lew, Rebecca L. Starr, and Elizabeth Coppock (see Sources listed at the bottom of this post): liberals tend to use the [a] as in father, while conservatives more often use the [æ] as in fat. The use of the Ukraine, however, seems to be equally common among Democrats and Republicans. US President Barack Obama is quoted in The Washington Post as saying (italics mine): “It is important that Congress stand with us. I don’t doubt the bipartisan concern that’s been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine”. Republican Mitt Romney also used “the Ukraine” while criticizing Obama on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “And unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine”.

As was noted above, some Ukrainians think that the use of the definite article with the name of their country makes it sound as if Ukraine is not a sovereign state. This idea, however, is mistaken. A number of current and former names of sovereign states, including those of the two Cold War superpowers, contain “the”: the United States and the Soviet Union. Note also the Netherlands, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the People’s Republic of China. Some writers have suggested that the definite article is used with sovereign state names only if they are plural. This stipulation might be said to work for the United States, the Netherlands and the Philippines, but “the United States” has generally been conceived as a singular entity since the Civil War (before the 1860s, one would usually write “the United States are…,” whereas since that time the correct usage is “the United States is…” Other countries that take the definite article in English, moreover, are always framed as singular. A second exception seems to be island nations, like the Philippines and the United Kingdom (note that the Philippines also falls under the first category of plural toponyms, but not the United Kingdom, which is grammatically singular, a point completely missed by Zezima). The third exception appears to be names of states containing the word republic: the Federal Republic of Germany the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the People’s Republic of China (all of which are neither plural nor an island). Yet none of the three patterns explain the Soviet Union or the USSR. Thus the only reasonable conclusion is that the presence or absence of the definite article with country names is a lexical matter: the is or is not a part of a country name on an idiosyncratic basis. Therefore, there is nothing inherently offensive in saying the Ukraine.

Such idiosyncratic, lexical patterns may change over time, as do, for example, patterns of preposition use (more on which below). It appears that the Ukraine follows an older pattern, gradually being replaced by Ukraine, without the definite article. Such changes can be quite slow, with a transitional period when both forms coexist in the language. In contemporary English the Ukraine coexists with Ukraine, just as iced tea coexists with ice tea—check out such tea labels on your next supermarket trip, as both usages are found, sometimes even on the part of the same company. No evidence exists, moreover, that the definite article is dropped soon as a country receives independence, even though The Washington Post article quotes David Lightfoot, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, as “remember[ing] calling Argentina ‘the Argentine’ and Lebanon ‘the Lebanon’ before they gained independence”. This can hardly be the case, particularly in the case of Argentina, which declared its independence in 1816.  (Lebanon gained its independence in 1943). The fact that Lightfoot witnessed the usage the Argentine means that it persisted long after the country became independent, just as the Ukraine persists to this day.  Even if geopolitical status is relevant to such usage, which remains unclear, language does not “react” immediately to such changes in sovereignty.

A related issue is the choice of the preposition used with Ukraine in Russian, raised in passing in the Washington Post article. The article cites the above-mentioned Professor Flier as equating Russian na Ukraine with the English in the Ukraine, although the only thing that the two constructions have in common is that they upset certain (misinformed) Ukrainian nationalists. Russian, like Ukrainian, does not use articles at all, so the issue of whether Ukraine should have the appended is moot in both languages. The relevant issues here concerns the fact that Russian uses two prepositions to designate location: na, which translates into English roughly as ‘on’, and v, which is usually translated as ‘in’. These translations are not perfect, however, as idiosyncratic, lexical factors affect the choice of the prepositions in both Russian and English. To focus on Russian, the choice between na and v may express a clear difference in meaning, as with na jaščike ‘on the box’ vs. v jaščike ‘in the box’: the former indicates location on the surface of the box while the latter refers to the location inside the box. In other cases, the choice of the preposition denotes a more subtle difference in meaning. For example, with means of transportation such as ‘train’, ‘airplane’, ‘bus’, ‘tram’, na is used when travelling is explicitly talked about in the sentence (typically, with verbs of motions, such as ‘go’, ‘arrive’, ‘travel’ and the like), and v is used otherwise. Thus, I can say that I travel na poezde or na avtobuse (literally, ‘on train’, ‘on bus’). But to say that the train contains a restaurant-car on the train or that there are many children in the bus, the other preposition must be used: v poezde and v avtobuse (literally, ‘in train’, ‘in bus’). To say ‘there are many children na avtobuse’ would mean that the children are on top of the bus, not inside it; ‘na poezde there is restaurant-car’ is just awkward.

When it comes to toponyms, there are certain apparent patterns, but each “rule” has its idiosyncratic exceptions. Thus, one generally uses na with names of islands and peninsulas: na Madagaskare (literally ‘on Madagascar’), na Kube (literally ‘on Cuba’), na Aljaske (literally ‘on Alaska’). Yet, other islands and peninsulas appear with v: v Velikobritanii (literally, ‘in Great Britain’; recall that the country’s island geography is used by some people as an explanation for the use of the definite article in the United Kingdom), v Grenlandii (‘in Greenland’), and v Krymu (‘in Crimea’). Similarly, some regions that are not sovereign states appear with na—which is why some Ukrainian pundits find na Ukraine offensive)—but other similar regions appear with v: na Kubani (‘on Kuban’), na Donbasse (‘on Donbass’), but v Jakutii (‘in Yakutia’), v Udmurtii (‘in Udmurtia’). As with the use of the definite article with toponyms, the choice of the preposition—na or v—is a purely lexical matter: the pairing of nouns with one or the other of the two prepositions is not subject to any clear rules. Note that the choice of the preposition can be just as idiosyncratic with non-toponyms: for example, one says v teni (literally, ‘in shade’), but na solnce (literally ‘on sun’, meaning ‘in the sunny area, not covered by shade’). Foreign-language learners must learn this sort of thing on a case-by-case basis, much like idioms.*

As for Ukraine, the Russian literary norm is na Ukraine, whether it drives Ukrainian nationalists mad or not. Supposedly, this preposition choice “makes it sound as if Ukraine is not an independent country”, but such anger actually flows from the fact that in the Ukrainian language the literary norm is v Ukraini. However, the grammatical norms of one language cannot be used to establish prescriptive rules in another language. For example, English speakers do not have a say in how the French should pronounce/speak/write their language, nor vice versa. English speakers do not insist that the French put the adverbials before the verb rather than between the verb and the object (cf. English John often eats chocolate vs. French Jean mange souvent le chocolat). Nor do the French insist that the English speakers use the definite article with the generic uses of nouns (cf. French le chocolat in the above example vs. English chocolate, without the). In the similar fashion, Ukrainian linguistic norms play no role in defining the Russian language norms, and vice versa.

Those who seek clear and unexceptional “rules” in language should remember that language is not always logical. For example, there is no reasonable explanation why the Russian word mertvec ‘cadaver’ is grammatically animate, or why the Russian stul ‘chair’ is masculine whereas taburetka ‘stool’ is feminine and kreslo ‘arm-chair’ is neuter. In English one drives on parkways and parks on driveways. Both English and Russian use a grammatically plural form for bathing trunks (which denotes a single object) but a grammatically singular form for bikini (denoting two separate objects). One can bemoan the disorderliness of language, as Mark Twain famously did with his lament about the German gender system: “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has… [A] tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female… tomcats included.” Alternatively, one can enjoy the messiness of language, which makes it a much more nuanced tool for expressing meaning!



*The same tricky choice of na vs. v occurs in directed motion cases: na Kavkaz (‘to the Caucasus’) but v Al’py (‘to the Alps’).



Hall-Lew, Lauren, Rebecca L. Starr and Elizabeth Coppock. 2012. Style-Shifting in the U.S. Congress: The vowels of ‘Iraq(i)’. In: Juan Manuel Hernndez Campoy and Juan Antonio Cutillas Espinosa, eds. Style-Shifting in Public: New Perspectives on Stylistic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 45-63.

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca L. Starr. 2010. Indexing Political Persuasion: Variation in the Iraq Vowels. American Speech. 85(1):91-102.

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca Starr. 2007. Variation in the ‘Iraq’ Vowels: Conservatives vs. Liberals. New Ways of Analyzing Variation 36 (NWAV36). 11-14 October, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.



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