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There are some countries whose names are (or were) exceptions in English, like The Lebanon, The Gambia and others. So was The Ukraine. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. It’s an exception. You might as well ask why Celtic the club has a soft ‘c’ but the Celts are pronounced with a hard ‘c’. If you insist, my take on this is that the word means ‘borders’ in Slavonic languages and that the people who first wrote in English about The Ukraine spoke Russian and so mentally translated The Borders into The Ukraine.

There has long been this movement from the media to drop the definite article, because the Ukrainians “don’t like it”. The new, independent state should be ‘Ukraine’ whereas The Ukraine referred to the old USSR region. Using the definite article is apparently reserved in English for regions and we are denigrating the new, independent state by referring to it as if it were a region.

This is all nonsense. We never said The Estonia, The Kazakhstan or The Georgia. But we’ve always said The Ukraine, even before the USSR was born. I did a Google search on 19th century English books about The Ukraine and you can see that the article was being used then.

Exceptions are normal in languages. The Germans also say ‘die Ukraine’, but it’s England, Rußland, Polen. In fact they also say Der Iran and Der Irak. Why? Who knows and who cares.

In Spanish we have Mexico, Guatemala but El Salvador. Have the good people of El Salvador complained to the Spanish? Or have the Ukrainians complained to the Germans to drop the ‘die’?

No but Americans have complained..

A German speaker asked the same question in Yahoo: is it ‘Ukraine’ or ‘die Ukraine’? Apparently it was an American who’s complained about the definite article in Die Ukraine and tried to correct the German. The best rated answer is one that sent him to a page by Der Spiegel on correct German usage. In short, there are no articles for countries, but there are exceptions and ‘die Ukraine’ is one. Sorry mate, don’t tell us how to speak our language. End of story. As it should be in English.

Now, American speakers generally dislike exceptions, which is why they say ‘I feel good’ instead of ‘I feel well’. This is why they say ‘the giver’ and ‘the givee’ instead of ‘the recipient’. A rule is there to embrace the complete language and exceptions are a horror that must be explained. So as most countries don’t have the definite article, all countries shouldn’t have the definite article. Indeed, Americans say ‘Lebanon’, whereas UK speakers say ‘The Lebanon’ as the Human League have amply demonstrated.

This all blew up because of two things. Firstly by a stink started by a Ukrainian-Canadian librarian called Andrew Gregorovich, whose arguments that the definite article was introduced in the twentieth century I think I disproved already.

Then, in the wake of national fervour, there was a 1990s case in a US court where the judge decided the country should be referred to as ‘Ukraine’. The point is, of course, that the linguistic sentiment of the judge followed the US aversion to exceptions and guided him towards dropping the article. His judgement (see Note #1) is by no means a binding one for speakers in the UK. But from then on, the OED changed its Style Guide, all British media accepted the judgement – and the reasons behind it – and, afraid of giving offence where none was intended, tried to change the language top-down.

So, is it Ukraine or The Ukraine?

  • The requests for dropping the definite article arise from a mistaken view that its use is recent. It is not, as I pointed out with those nineteenth-century books.
  • The presence of a definite article doesn’t mean we reserve it for a region. Not only did we never say The Estonia, The Kazakhstan or The Georgia, but we still say Flanders, Aquitaine but the Dordogne.
  • No such requests were never made in another language as I pointed out with German. The Germans know when something is an exception and they won’t change their language to suit demands from non-native speakers.
  • Needless to say that in the Ukrainian language there has never been an article so it’s not as if they dropped it after independence.

So what are we left with? An introduced Americanism. I have nothing against Americanisms per se – where would modern English be without them? By all means call the Ukraine whatever you like, but don’t tell me that I should go for the American usage because of some mistaken belief that using the centuries-old English form is dissing the Ukrainians.

I somehow feel that this post is pointless and that in ten years’ time we’ll have dropped the articles from every country except when there is a plural (the Philippines) or when we don’t realize there’s an article there already (El Salvador). I bet that the last one to bite the dust will be the Vatican.

But at least be clear as to the why: it’s not because we are insulting non-native English speakers, but because international media networks are adopting the American usage.