The Politics of Definite Articles: Ukrainian Edition

There is an interesting bit of etymological anxiety associated with the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea: are these places called Ukraine or the Ukraine, or Crimea or the Crimea? The question is whether we use a definite articles when referring to these places.

The justification given is that using “the” is offensive, or at least political. Adam Taylor reviews both the cases of Ukraine and Crimea to remind us that some Ukrainians will be upset if you refer to their country as the Ukraine. You can detect some distinct efforts by English speaking commentators not to offend anyone by carefully not using the definite article.

Unnoticed these discussions is the fact that lots of languages regularly use definite articles to describe countries: France in French is La France. We would expect to use a definite article when naming countries; it’s not optional, it’s obligatory. And in fact, you can check this out for yourself by going to the Wikipedia entry for Crimea and clicking on the other languages’ entries. In French, it’s La Crimée. In German, Die Krim. In Italian, La Crimea. In Dutch, de Krim. Same with Ukraine: L’Ukraine, Die Ukraine, L’Ucraina. (In Dutch, though, Oekraïne. No idea why.)

How about Ukrainian and Russian? Well, like most Slavic languages, Ukrainian does not have either definite or indefinite articles. So the Ukraine and Ukraine would both be translated as Україна. Same with Crimea = Крим in Ukrainian and Qιrιm in Crimean Tatar, which also does not have definite articles.

So really, this anxiety is something that is confined to speakers of English, one of the only languages in the world where we are not obligated to use definite articles but sometimes do. An example like the Netherlands doesn’t strike most people as political or offensive because it’s just a straightforward adoption of the Dutch phrase de Nederlanden, which means “the low countries” (and confusingly, is that the Dutch name for the Netherlands actually drops the “the”: it’s Nederland). An example like the Gambia is OK too, because the name just connotes the region surrounding the Gambia river.

So what’s going on? The reason usually given why Ukrainians don’t like the Ukraine is because it translates as something close to “the borderland.” That implies that the territory can only be understood with respect to somewhere else—in this case, Russia. But nothing about taking “the” away gets rid of the etymology of Ukraine! We are still left with a puzzle.

My guess is only tentative, but here we go. “The” reminds an educated speaker what Ukraine means. An analogy: if we called Pennsylvania the Pennsylvania you might think “hmm, I wonder what sylvania means”. For those who are anxious about Ukraine’s geopolitical situation and historical ties to Russia, objecting to “the” is less problematic than objecting to Ukraine, which would call into question what this former Soviet territory ought to be called. Which, when you think about it, might go a long way to helping us understand what’s going in Ukraine right now. As I say, it’s only a guess. The broader point is that however much we may want to respect Ukrainians’ wishes for how we translate their name, it’s not obvious why this is as big of a deal as it is made out to be.

As for Crimea, it’s murkier. Why we often use the Crimea is not clear. The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not provide an entry for Crimea, but it does provide one for Crimean. That definition refers to Crimea using the Crimea. There is some disagreement about the root etymology of Crimea, as coming from the Tatar word qιrιm [= hill] or from the ancient Cimmerians (in Greek: Κιμμέριοι, Kimmerioi) who lived to the north. Either way, I cannot find a good reason why it would be less offensive to say Crimea than the Crimea. And again, it’s not obvious why one is political and the other is not.

Comments 6

  1. Vincent Tencate March 5, 2014

    Hello, Tom. As a Dutch speaker, I can tell you that many Dutch news commentators similarly struggle with the use of a definite article in the case of Ukraine, although the large majority simply refers to the country as Ukraine. I have been told this is because saying ‘the Ukraine’ is no longer correct now that Ukraine is an autonomous nation state, and in Dutch it is only customary to refer to regions (e.g. de Dordogne) with definite articles, not countries. Saying ‘the Ukraine’ thus inherently negates the country’s independence, which is why I believe many people take offense to the term. People have the same problem with Congo here, and frequently erroneously refer to the country as ‘de Congo’, although this honestly sounds more antiquated than it does politically insensitive. This is likely also the reason that the Dutch say ‘de Krim’ rather than simply ‘Krim’, as Crimea is a geographical region and not a political entity. Hope this helps!

    • tompepinsky March 5, 2014

      That is fantastically interesting, thanks for sharing. So it sounds here like Dutch actually parallels English here, but with a proper rule about regions versus countries (we have no such rule). Interestingly, my Wikipedia test tells me that you say “Gambia,” not “The Gambia.” So it’s a good rule, a consistent one.

      • Vincent Tencate March 5, 2014

        I’ve just spent a good while googling the etymology of saying ‘the Ukraine’, and the region/country distinction seems to be a fairly common theory among native English speakers as well. As far as I can tell it is actually the most ubiquitous theory, although there are compelling other ones as well (e.g. Chronoscopist’s comment on this yahoo answers page: Wikipedia also has a section on the issue, which states the following:

        In English, the definite article is used with geographical identifiers primarily in one of four situations: 1. if the name is plural (“the Philippines”, “the Netherlands”); 2. if a common noun is included (“the United States”, “the Central African Republic”); 3. if the region in question is a sub-region of another (“the Sudetenland”, “the Saar”);[36] 4. if the country is essentially synonymous with a marked geographical feature (“the Republic of The Gambia [River]”, “the Ivory Coast”). Prior to its 1991 independence, the technical name of Ukraine as a constituent part of the Soviet Union was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and thus by reasons likely stemming from 2 and 3 above was often referred to in English as the Ukraine. As none of the four conditions now hold (and conditions 1 and 4 never applied), the use of the definite article is now obsolete. Since the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine the English-speaking world has largely stopped using the article.[37][38][39][40] Since November 1991, several American journalists started to refer to Ukraine as Ukraine instead of the Ukraine.[39] The Associated Press dropped the article ‘the’ on 3 December 1991.[39] This approach has become established in journalism and diplomacy since (other examples are the style guides of The Guardian[41] and The Times[42]). In 1993 the Ukrainian government requested that the article be dropped.[43]

  2. tompepinsky March 6, 2014

    Really excellent stuff. I suppose that this is all consistent with my observations: there is no doubt that Ukraine is originally a word to describe a region (“the borderland”). It’s fine to say that we shouldn’t use “the” now that it’s an independent country, but the essence of the objection is that the connotation of “the Ukraine” is that it is a region understood with reference to Russia, and that remains even if we take away “the” because that’s baked right into the name of “Ukraine.”

    • Vincent Tencate March 6, 2014

      Sounds about right to me. Fascinating blog, I’ll definitely keep following!

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