Don’t say “the” Ukraine


Have you ever wondered why some people use the definite article with Ukraine, and whether they are correct to do so?

A related question came up in a French lesson recently in which we were looking at how to say “to” or “in” a place. The big question in French is whether the name of the country happens to be masculine or feminine, but that’s a different tangent.


Back to Ukraine:

There are certain countries, even in English, which take the definite article, but the reason is usually clear: the Netherlands is a translation of ‘the low-lying countries’, the Philippines is a shortened form of ‘the Philippine Islands’, named in honour of Philip II of Spain. ‘The Yemen’ requires deeper research, but it turns out that it refers to the country’s position at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, as ‘Yemen’ derives from the Arabic word for south.


So, if the convention is to use ‘the’ for countries that are named for geographical locations, then what about (the) Ukraine? The word comes from the Russian word for border, so when we say ‘the’ Ukraine we are unwittingly supporting the preposterous notion that Ukraine is just the border region [of Russia]. Until a couple of weeks ago this might have been a quaint insight into how place names have originated, but it now takes on a more sinister overtone.


A proud Ukrainian would never use the definite article, partly because the name of the country should suffice in its own right, but partly, granted, because articles – definite or indefinite – do not exist in the same way in Slavic languages!


Maybe I’m overthinking it, but dropping the ‘the’ shows solidarity with the people of Ukraine: a very small and somewhat nerdy act of defiance showing that we do not think of Ukraine merely as the border area of Russia, but a sovereign country in its own right!


Andrew Wenger is the founder and director of SameSky Languages. Whilst not a strict policy, we generally avoid talking about politics and other PARSNIPs*. We must accept that we are living, as if suffering the Chinese curse, in ‘interesting times’ and therefore our conversations, particularly with higher ability groups, will tend towards more controversial topic areas.

*PARSNIPs: Politics Alcohol Religion Sex Narcotics '-isms' and Pork. This is the acronym to remember which topics trainee TEFL teachers are instructed to avoid. Recently however, it has become something of a guide as to which topics to focus on, especially when teaching the advanced level French and German groups!

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