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This Google ngram compares the use of the phrases "in the Ukraine" and "in Ukraine" over time. A big change happened in the mid-1990s, when use of the definite article declined significantly.

Use of the definite article in English is said to be inherently insulting to Ukrainians by implying that their country is not sovereign.

To what extent is this assertion justified on linguistic and philological grounds?

  • 1
    Note that for English we can search for mention without the preposition in the n-gram viewer, because although it is not possible to explicitly search for mentions of Ukraine without the article, we can search for the mentions with the article and subtract that. books.google.com/ngrams/… That is, early on, nearly all mentions included the article, and I suspect those without were simply not in prose but indices etc. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 21 '17 at 8:21
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    @A.M.Bittlingmayer, Google Ngrams allows +/- expressions and also has _DET_ macro ("determiner or article"). Hence, searching for _DET_ Ukraine,Ukraine - (_DET_ Ukraine) does the trick – bytebuster Jun 21 '17 at 9:25
  • I'm curious, is there any rationale behind the view that use of the article implies the country is not sovereign? I don't think it makes sense to English speakers! – Gaston Ümlaut Jun 21 '17 at 21:55
  • @bytebuster Thank you, very useful. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 22 '17 at 9:12
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This question has been discussed in various fora more than it probably even deserved, may the gods of linguistics forgive me for contributing to that.

Quite simply the Anglophone world had no direct contact with what is now Ukraine, nor was English a lingua franca in Eastern Europe in that era, at the time that some cognate of Ukraine entered the English language. So toponyms, ethnonyms and so on in English tended to be inspired by French, German or even Latin in that era.

From the few historic mentions of Ukraine in English, we can try to infer whether it was more French-inspired or Latin-inspired or even perhaps Polish-inspired:

1651 Ukrain, 1671 Ukraine, 1688 Ucrania, Ukrania, 1762 Ocraine.

Slavic languages typically have no definite or indefinite articles, whereas French and German uses articles with many more countries and regions than English do. Both French and German still use the definite article with Ukraine -- l'Ukraine and die Ukraine -- as French also does for France and many other countries, and German does for Switzerland and some other countries.

This is also true for regions or countries in or near Ukraine: die Moldau usually, die Bukovina or das Buchenland, das Banat, das Kosovo or der Kosovo, die Batschka, die Krim, die Dobrudscha, die Slowakei and, again somewhat controversially, die Tschechei, but Moldawien, Galizien, Ruthenien, Bessarabien, Siebenbürgen, Tschechien.

There is a logic to this in the sense that based on lexical features a native speaker would impute an article and gender for a name he or she had not heard before, but there is no geopolitical logic to it in the sense that article or lack of article does not imply a greater degree of autonomy or official status.

That said, French uses en Ukraine, that is, there is no definite article when saying in Ukraine. This is not specific to Ukraine but to the preposition en, it is the same for la France itself, and for most if not all other countries or regions which take a definite article.

In English, there are fewer geographical regions or countries with the definite article, and we can say that there is likewise no geopolitical meaning to it. The common name of a certain global superpower has an article, as do the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China and so on.

So there is no fundamental linguistic basis for this drama, in the sense that there is no definite article in Slavic, and no geopolitical meaning to the definite article in the relevant European languages that do use definite articles.

As a political and personal matter, most of us try to respect the wishes of countries, cities, organisations, persons and so on with regard to their own official name for themselves in various languages. See the cases of Ivory Coast, Burma, Macedonia, South Korea, Czechia, Constantinople, Calcutta, Bangalore, Golda Meir, Cat Stevens and so on, to say nothing of the maiden name concept. And likewise most of us are a bit forgiving if other persons do not instantly or consistently update their names for all such entities and persons in all contexts in all languages. That is outside the scope of this SE.

  • Not included in my answer as it is just opinion: the name of Ukraine should really be Russia, and the name of Russia should be Ukraine, given which one is the modern Kievski Rus, and which one was and is the frontier. Hence Ruthenia. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 21 '17 at 8:24
  • If you look at the map of Kievan Rus, say, in the 11th century,, many important cities were at the "borders" (can be called "borderland"): Kiev, Novgorod, the future lands of Moscow. It's really a vague term. Also, the modern Ukrainian state wants their state to be ideologically a continuation of Kievan Rus (after a thousand year old hiatus), I'm not sure how it actually makes them "the modern Kievski Rus" (if you cling on the term Kievan Rus itself, then this term first appeared only in the early 19 century in the works of Vostokov as a purely academic term which now entered mainstream use) – Constantine Geist Jun 21 '17 at 8:33
  • But yeah, after Russians started colonizing Siberia, Russia indeed became the frontier. – Constantine Geist Jun 21 '17 at 8:34
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    @ConstantineGeist - The Uralic languages influence on Russian is massive, both on phonology, lexicon, and grammar. Most of what is now the Central and Northern Russia used to be the lands of different Finnic people which were rusified and converted to Christianity. The region where Moscow is situated was originally inhabited by Merya, a Finnic people. – Yellow Sky Jun 28 '17 at 14:58
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    @ConstantineGeist "U menya X". Dropped copula. Same structure as Turkish ("Bende ... var") etc. Not the same as any other Slavic (imeet'), or, to my knowledge, Indo-European language. If you are not aware of this, maybe you should not be pushing an ideology. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 29 '17 at 8:37
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Apart from use in "regions" (the Sahara, the Middle East, the South...), definite articles are often used with certain countries: Ukraine, Bahamas, Netherlands, Philippines, Congo, Comoros, Maldives, Seychelles, Sudan. The use is more predictable in names that form branching NPs, like Central African Republic and even more obligatorily in Central African Empire, Solomon Islands, Dominican Republic, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, United States of America, United Arab Emirates, Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Holy See. And then there's Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In the case of The Gambia, the country was named after the Gambia River, where the article is obligatory. Similarly, The Bahamas derives its name from an island chain that extends past the current country.

There is no sense in which use of a definite article in a country name is intrinsically "insulting" in English, especially given that English is spoken in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Google ngram fact is the result of political events, following the general pattern that journalists tend to use whatever the official English version is of a place name. Other examples of journalistic name-shift include Peking/Beijing, and a couple decades long uptick in Cambodia/Kampuchea. The official demise of the article in Ukraine is Dec. 3, 1991 (though it declined in use in the preceding weeks). It is reported that some Ukrainians felt that the use of the article was insulting, and that was sufficient to cause an official name shift. The shift from the spoken form of the name Burma ဗမာ to the written form Myanmar မြန်မာ has not been anywhere near as complete since the official change in 1989, perhaps because it was an arbitrary decision by a a military dictatorship.

0

In this special case, English usage might be influenced by German usage. For the German language, there are the following rules

  • By default, countries are neuter singular and without definite article
  • Countries that are masculine (der Iran, der Irak), feminine (die Schweiz, die Türkei, die Ukraine, die Elfenbeinküste), or plural (die Niederlande, die Vereinigten Staaten/die USA) have the definie article
  • There are a few exceptional countries that are neuter and carry the definite article (das Saarland, das Elsass, das Allgäu)
  • Some country names look like plurals but are treated as neuter singulars anyway (Bayern, Hessen, Italien, Spanien)

There is a diachronic tendency to drop the use of articles for some of the countries (Saarland, Iran, Irak) but not for others (die Schweiz, die Türkei)

-1

In standard Russian, there's a similar phenomenon: the preposition "in" in the phrase "in Ukraine" is literally "on", unlike what's the case for most other modern European countries (preposition "in"), although "on" is naturally used for island countries, and for many names of historical regions/countries (it's always "on Cuba"; it's always "on (Kievan) Rus"; and the name "Ukraine" was used for that historical region long before the modern country appeared). Ukrainians themselves always use "in" and think it's insulting to them that Russians say "on Ukraine", because we say "in Germany", "in Poland", etc. There's never intent to insult Ukrainians, however, when we say "on Ukraine", it's just how it sounds natural in our dialect. The Ukrainian govt in the early 1990's issued a statement where they asked other post-Soviet countries to use "in Ukraine" instead of "on Ukraine" in official documents.

Languages develop in various complex ways, and there's always at least one exception for every rule. I don't think we say "geese" instead of "gooses" in English because we specifically hate geese and think they're not true birds. That's just how we're used to say it, we simply copy what we heard from our parents and grandparents, who themselves don't already know why it's so. I don't think there are any philological grounds for such assertions in either case.

On the other hand, if you want to stay politically correct, at least not to provoke unnecessary confrontations, I think it's reasonable to say "in Ukraine" when communicating with Ukrainians (or any other nation with similar demands)

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    -1: this does not even attempt to answer the question about the definite article. – bytebuster Jun 21 '17 at 7:07
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    The question was whether the assertion that "the Ukraine" is insulting is justified on linguistic grounds. I showed that there are similar assertions towards other unrelated languages from different cultures (same happens not only in Ukraine, but also in India etc.). That is, it's more political than linguistic. What's more intersting is that you write, "Since February 2014, Ukraine is suffering from Russia's armed invasion. If we fail to stop the Russian tanks in Ukraine ..." in your profile, I wonder if your -1 is related to that. Looks like it's political again and not linguistic. – Constantine Geist Jun 21 '17 at 7:52

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