Ukraine is much in the news these days and I have noticed that journalists reporting from the region will often find it quite natural to slip into the terminology ‘The Ukraine’ during the course of their reports, whether verbal on TV and radio or written. I have also been aware that some readers or listeners of Ukrainian heritage object to this practice. This surprised me because in the English language the definite article is required or optional in the name of many countries. Why does it sound and feel perfectly acceptable in some cases and not in others? This question prompted me to look into the rules of English grammar and I wrote the following article to myself several years ago.
‘Ukraine’ or ‘The Ukraine’?
Persons of Ukrainian background living in English-speaking countries sometimes object to native English speakers referring to their ancestral homeland as ‘The Ukraine’ rather than Ukraine, as though this was a derogatory name for the country. I have even read that this usage is a deliberate attempt by Russia to belittle its now independent neighbour. Considering that there is no such thing as a definite article in either the Russian or Ukrainian languages, I found this statement particularly bizarre. As a native English speaker who, along with many others, finds that ‘The Ukraine’ rolls quite naturally off the tongue in certain contexts, with no idea that it might cause offence in some quarters, I thought I should look a little more closely at the grammatical rules that govern the use of the definite article before the names of countries.
The rules, of course, vary from one language to another. German uses the definite article for some countries die Schweiz, die Ukraine, but not others Deutschland, Frankreich. In French, the definite article is obligatory – France is la France and Ukraine is l’Ukraine. At the other extreme, definite articles are never used in the Slavic languages simply because they don’t exist! Perhaps that is why some Ukrainians, used to saying Ukraina in their mother tongue, feel that ‘The Ukraine’ is a mistranslation that must be associated with underlying motives.
In English, the rules are much more subtle and flexible. The names of countries in the following three categories are generally preceded by a definite article:
(i) Countries which are designated as republics, kingdoms etc., e.g. The United Kingdom (The U.K. for short), The Czech Republic, The Soviet Union.
(ii) Countries whose names are plural nouns, e.g. The Philippines, The Bahamas, The Maldives, The United States (would also qualify under (i) if the singular ‘State’ were used).
(iii) Countries whose names are taken from a geographical feature of some kind, e.g. The Congo (river), The Gambia (river), The Netherlands (lowlands) which also qualifies as a plural noun, The Ivory Coast, or in some sense evoke an image of some geographical feature, e.g. The Yemen, The Sudan, The Argentine.
‘The Ukraine’ falls into category (iii). Whether it is because it translates as ‘The Borderland’ (cf. The Netherlands) or summons up a picture of vast prairie landscapes, I have no idea. But I do know that, unlike obviously incorrect usages such as ‘The Norway’ or ‘The Spain’, the name ‘The Ukraine’ sounds and feels perfectly acceptable in the English language.
That being said, there is a trend in modern English to drop the definite article for those countries listed under category (iii). ‘The Argentine’ has all but disappeared in favour of Argentina. Although its official name is ‘The Republic of The Gambia’ (note the two ‘The’s), it is often simply referred to as Gambia. Sudan and Yemen are now more common than The Sudan and The Yemen. Congo, however, is ambiguous as there are presently two countries including that name in their official titles. Thus it is better to preserve their full names, ‘The Democratic Republic of The Congo’ and ‘The Republic of The Congo’.
Likewise with Ukraine. These days the ‘The’ is often dropped and officially so in various style manuals produced for the BBC, The Economist and The New York Times, among others. Thus I predict ‘Ukraine’ will gradually supersede ‘The Ukraine’ in common speech, but until that happens both terms are grammatically acceptable and arise quite naturally in the English language.