What're Ukraine About?

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From memebase.cheezburger.com:

The punch line:


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

    Until about 20 years ago, we never referred to the country as "Ukraine", but always as "The Ukraine". That puzzled me, yet I never figured out why Ukraine was exceptionally referred to that way with the definite article.

  2. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    Aren't there several countries/regions that used to or still do take the definite article in this way? The ones that spring to mind are the Gambia, the Yemen, and, in keeping with this post, the Crimea. Perhaps there's a pattern, though I have no idea what it might be.

  3. Stan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    He's putin him on.

  4. Gene Callahan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    The Czech Republic usually gets both "the" and "republic" added on!

  5. Maciej Godek said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    Historically, the word "ukraina" meant "borderland, march" in Polish and the East Slavic languages. According to the Polish Wikipedia, it was used primarily in this general sense until the 16th century. It began functioning as a proper name somewhere in the 17th century (although sometimes in adjectival form, e.g. "województwa ukrainne", 'border voivodships'). The etymological meaning remains more or less transparent in Modern Polish. I suspect the same is true of Russian and Ukrainian. (http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukraina_(nazwa))

    My theory is that whoever popularized this name in English attempted to indicate its origin as a common noun, i.e. "the Ukraine" as opposed to other "ukraines". Kind of like "The Hague", possibly — except in this case the Dutch equivalent also includes the article, whereas Polish and the East Slavic languages don't have any articles.

    The Czech Republic is probably not a good example, though. It's more like "The British Commonwealth".

  6. Toma said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Just when I thought there wasn't any new ground to cover in knock-knock jokes! The addition of the photos sort of gives the genre new life.

  7. RW said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    There's an interesting piece on definite articles in country names here:


    I always found it curious that in German, Turkey is "The Turkey". I imagine there are other examples of countries being given definite articles in one language but not another.

  8. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    Gene Callahan, but isn't that because "Czech" is functioning adjectivally? Cf. the United Kingdom, the United States, the Democratic Republic of the (!) Congo. That said, some people drop the definite article when speaking of the Ivory Coast.

  9. Kevin Ringeisen said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    From what I understand, countries which take the definite article have their names based upon geographical features or regions (like "The Netherlands" or "The Phillipines") in which case they're rather similar to constructions like "The Amazon" or "The Sahara".

    Or they are political organizations like "The United States of America", "The People's Republic of China" or "The Czech Republic."

    I've also heard that since gaining their independence the definite article has dropped sharply out of favor among Ukrainians. Something along the lines of the definite article referring back to when the Ukraine was merely a region in the Soviet bloc. (For the same reasons I suppose, "The Crimea" is still "The Crimea")

    The difference is less pronounced between "The Ukraine" and "Ukraine" but if you type "In the Ukraine" and "In Ukraine" into Google Ngram the two uses diverge drastically right in the year 1990 (when they got their independence).

  10. Tim said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

    There's a "rule" (which fails in this and several other cases) at http://www.cambridge.org/grammarandbeyond/newsletter/2011/11/using-the-with-the-names-of-countries

    I argree that it is a generational thing. I knew people of my parents' generation who would say 'The Argentine', but few would now recognize this as Argentina.

  11. Matt Keefe said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    It's not especially exceptional, as others have noted, and other countries have been through the process of losing the article likewise – 'the Jordan' would be very rare nowadays, for instance, as would the Cameroon. I'm not sure there's a pattern (especially when we consider that countries like the UK and the USA carry it also). The claim has been made in regards to Ukraine (as here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18233844) that it somehow denigrates countries or implies that they are simply a region of some other polity, but I'm not sure this really stacks up either. Certainly, if Ukrainians wish the article not to be used, I see no reason to ignore their wishes, but it's hard to know where a definitive precedent for all such cases would come from. Certainly, in some cases, removing it would seem incorrect, as some countries are known by it in the local language(s). Neither Russian nor Ukrainian have articles, so that's not the case there, but Arabic does, and a number of Arab countries are named with the article, including many that do not have it in English – al-Iraq, al-Urdun (the Jordan), al-Sudan (as in English). In fact, even Saudi has it. Neither Lebanon or Yemen, however, use the article in Arabic. I'm sure other languages must use the article with the names of countries, and presumably different ones – French and la Perse comes to mind – so I don't know if there's really any kind of pattern to it.

  12. Jan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Come on! You don't say "the" United States, "the" United Kingdom?

  13. Matt Keefe said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Levantine, ever since independence, the Czech authorities have proposed that their country be known as Czechia in English (mirroring Česko in Czech); the habitual resort to the formal long form doesn't appear to have any particular reason behind it, and isn't done in Czech.

  14. Gene Callahan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    @Levantine, yes, but Slovakia is officially "The Slovak Republic" but everyone uses just a single word.

  15. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    Matt Keefe, my guess would be that "Czech" as an adjective was familiar to English-speakers, whereas "Czechia" wasn't, which is why the Czech authorities didn't get their way.

    And Jan, I don't know if your question is serious. Is there any native English speaker who would say "I went to United Kingdom" or "I'm from United States"?

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

    It's not exactly new ground in knock-knock jokes. The earliest use of the pun I can find is from 1957, though there may have been a jazz track in 1956.

  17. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    Gene Callahan, that's a fair point, but again, I would suggest familiarity has a large part to do with it, "Slovakia" being well known to English-speakers as the second part of "Czechoslovakia".

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    My best recollection from long-ago German classes is that (leaving aside things like the Netherlands that might be morphologically plural), most country names in German are neuter nouns that are conventionally anarthrous but a minority are feminine nouns that are conventionally arthrous. For some reason "die Tschechoslowakei" (now no longer a country) is the standard example of the latter category that sticks in my memory many decades later, and "die Türkei" turns out to be another from that list. If there is any non-arbitrary basis for which countries ended up in the latter minority category, I don't know it. Compound names (e.g. involving "Republik" as an element) might also be arthrous and take gender according to their head noun, e.g. "Republik" is feminine, so it was "die sogenannte DDR."

    They may perhaps be more admirable in various other respects than their current Muscovite antagonists, but Ukranian nationalists are certainly not free of the petty and thin-skinned fascination with onomastic issues that is a common hallmark of petty nationalisms around the world, presumably for the usual combination of magical thinking and pop Whorfianism. "If only we can make everyone call us by a slightly different name, our economy and geopolitical situation will improve." Yeah, look how much better the Kyrghyz are doing since we agreed to stop calling them Kirghiz.

  19. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    Jan, my apologies. Rereading your comment, I now get what you meant.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    On the topic of Crimea jokes, the Independent headline on Thursday said "How do you solve a problem like Crimea?".

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    German has two equivalents to the English (derived from Latin) ending -ia (which sometimes becomes -y): -ien (like Italien, Spanien, Indien) and -ei (like Türkei, Slowakei, Mongolei), and for some reason the latter, but not the former, always takes die. There is some dispute over whether Czechia should be called die Tschechei (the traditional form) or Tschechien (the form now preferred, e.g. in Wikipedia). It seems that the Czechs prefer the latter, perhaps because its put the country's name on a par with old established countries.

  22. Lauren said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    When I was very young, and Ukraine gained independence, my Ukrainian relatives all came over for a party. We're Ukrainiphones, not Russiphones, so independence was a particularly big deal. One way independence from Russia and the USSR was expressed was by dropping the "The". I know for my Western Ukrainian family, it was a huge deal and a huge source of pride. We're most from Lviv Oblast, and I was born and raised in the USA (my mom's parents immigrated right before she was born, so I'm sorta 2nd gen American on that side). Still, my relatives back in Lviv have been fighting to distinguish Ukraine from Russia for almost as long as Russia has been intervening there. Just some insight into the loss of the "The" and why it might be important to politically motivated speech.

  23. dalriata said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    In "the United States" and "the United Kingdom", the definite article is acting on a noun phrase instead of just a noun. Similarly we have the Czech Republic or (a bit out of date) the Irish Free State. For "the Crimea", "the Gambia", and "the Ukraine", we have just a single noun that can also be used to describe a geographical feature: the Crimean peninsula, the Gambia River, the Ukrainian marches (redundant?). That sort of takes away from its state-ness, especially in the case of Ukraine where the geographical region implies marginality. Better to treat it as a national name, just like any other state.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    I should add that the -ei ending is always added to the name of the ethnic group for which the country is named, and perhaps the basic meaning is "land inhabited by X" regardless of whether it's an independent state, hence the definite article.

  25. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    dalriata, I don't think it's that simple. A little research suggests that "the Gambia" (officially the Republic of the Gambia) is how that country likes to be referred to itself.

  26. ===Dan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

    The presence or absence of an article is much less mysterious to me than the translations of country names into local languages. Germany for Deutschland, say. And when Wikipedia reports the "official" name it's still "Federal Republic of Germany." I can understand distortions for the sake of pronunciation (but even España for Spain mystifies me). I can understand translating words like "republic." But I don't understand "Greece." Why hold onto local translations of the old Roman names?

  27. dalriata said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

    Maybe they're more willing to associate their country with the geographical feature? It's, to the best of my knowledge, the only river-state in the world.

  28. Brett said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    @dalriata: What about Jordan? The fact that Jordan was originally Transjordan (before it annexed, then lost, the West Bank [of the Jordan River]) presumably explains why Jordan is anarthous, despite being named for a geographical feature.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

    I would wager a hryvnia or two that >99.9% of Anglophones haven't the foggiest idea of any semantic association between "borderland" and "Ukraine" (fallacy by etymology in a language they are unlikely to know and which is totally opaque to them), nor do they conceptualize the arthrous version as referring to a geographical feature rather than an associated political entity. The traditional arthrous form is just a random lexical semi-oddity that they may have picked up the way one generally picks up lexical semi-oddities — i.e. without thinking about them too hard. See also http://www.theonion.com/articles/ukrainianrussian-tensions-dividing-us-citizens-alo,35428/

  30. anhweol said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    Matt Keefe: while the Czech authorities may have officially favoured Czechia in English "ever since independence", Česko was not so widely accepted in Czech in the early years after the split, with the long form Česká republika being standard in the press. (Česko has clearly gained in popularity since). I think that fact contributed to the absence of a short form taking off in English at the very beginning. (Other European languages nevertheless introduced short forms early on, such as German Tschechien).

  31. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    Last summer when I was in, ahem, "the Czech Republic", I felt very awkward about saying the name of the country of my hosts. I actually felt more comfortable referring to their neighbor, Slovakia, even though, as Gene Callahan points out, the official English name is apparently"The Slovak Republic".

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    The official French name of the nation-state commonly called "France" is not "la France" but "la République française." But I imagine it is rarely called that, in either French or in English translation. Interestingly enough, Google books reveals some usage of (anarthrous) "Czechia" in 19th century English-language texts, but it alas may have fallen into disuse, with either "the Czech lands" or the simple compound "Bohemia and Moravia" being I believe the more typical ways of referring to the territory of the present Czech Republic in pre-Velvet-Divorce scholarly English. "Bohemia and Moravia" is not a priori an impossible English name for a nation-state, any more than "St. Kitts and Nevis" is, but may be problematic for various other reasons.

  33. Arjan said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: I think it's not about whether you associate the name with a geographical feature, but whether you are referring to a region or an independent country:

    Typically, when regions become genuine states, they lose their overt article: (the) Ukraine.

    Langendonck, Willy van, and Mark L.O. van de Velde. 2009. “The Functions of (In)definiteness Markers with Proper Names.”

  34. Chris Waters said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

    Does the Ukrainian language even have articles?

  35. Barbara Partee said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    Another example is The Yukon (which was a region, a territory) becoming Yukon when it became a province. So between that and Ukraine, I have been assuming, perhaps naively, that dropping the article was associated with graduating from being a region to being a country or a province or …

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    Re the Langendonck et al. paper, we have in English a highly limited number of datapoints (although the parallel to Dutch is interesting), especially since arthrousness is also very much the exception rather than the rule for English names of regions or subnational units. It would be interesting to see a timeline of exactly when "the Lebanon" and "the Sudan" fell into minority status, to see if that really matches up well with a change in geopolitical status versus something else. (Also, if the timeline was different for AmEng and BrEng, which is my vague intuition but which I have not checked against corpus data, you'd need a theory to explain that difference.)

    Since the presence/absence of the definite article in German is driven by grammatical gender (and as pointed out above that in turn is often driven by phonological/morphological factors such as choice of suffix) I think it's harder to treat that as a strict parallel to the English/Dutch examples. Is there any agitation by Turks to get German to trade in "die Türkei" in favor of anarthrous "Türkien"?

  37. Steven said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    A friend who lived in Prague for a few years after the separation said that his fellow foreigners delighted in using expressions such as "back in Czech". Perhaps some still do.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    @Chris Waters – Ukrainian like Russian lacks definite articles (so when L1 speakers of either try to learn English as adults they often have trouble with them), but there is apparently a parallel controversy over there about which preposition you use. If I've got it right (and apologies in advance if I've got it backwards), "na [Ukraine — left in English b/c I don't know how to inflect the case endings correctly]" matches up politically with the arthrous/traditional version in English and "v [Ukraine]" matches up politically with the anarthrous/nationalist version. Whether using/omitting the article is a sensible way to translate this intra-Slavic preposition controversy into English is not clear to me. It reminds me at some level of the Kirghiz/Kyrghyz changeover, which as I understand it sort of robotically tracked a changeover in the Cyrillic spelling which was actually meaningful in its original context (i.e., it intelligibly cued other Cyrillic-literate denizens of the former Soviet Union to change the pronunciation in a predictable way) but meaningless/confusing when carried over via transliteration into English.

  39. DaveK said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

    If I recall correctly, back in the 1960's and '70's, I heard the Ukrainian SSR referred to as "Ukrainia". It's closer to the name in Ukrainian but seems to have dropped out of sight.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    One interesting question for future research might be to what extent the anarthrous variant was already in use (and understood as a conscious shibboleth?) in English-language texts by Ukrainian nationalist emigres prior to the collapse of Soviet power (i.e. at a time when I'm assuming the arthrous variant would have been standard among most Anglophones regardless of political views on the subject). A quick dive into google books finds "liberate Ukraine" (I was trying to think of an n-gram suggestive of nationalist sympathies . . .) used as an alternative to "liberate the Ukraine" at least back into the '50's in texts by authors with Ukrainian-sounding names, but more work would be needed to quantify usage and its correlation with political/ethnic affiliation. And the possibility of some instances of the anarthrous version being simple errors (as an ESLish problem by an L1 Ukrainian-speaker who might not have had his English prose copy-edited by an L1 Anglophone) might distort the data.

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

    I would love to see (and surely my LL subscription fee entitles me to see) a post / guest post on here about Russian and Ukrainian – how similar and different they are, and whether the politicisation of language as an identity marker is thought to be pushing them further apart.

    I read a native Russian speaker recently estimating that he could understand 90% of Ukrainian as spoken in Kiev, but only about 10% in Lviv. Though he may have been exaggerating.

  42. Chris Waters said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: thanks, very informative.

  43. Victor Maurice Faubert said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

    “Barbara Partee said,
    March 6, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    Another example is The Yukon (which was a region, a territory) becoming Yukon when it became a province. So between that and Ukraine, I have been assuming, perhaps naively, that dropping the article was associated with graduating from being a region to being a country or a province or …”

    Yukon is not a province, but remains a territory, though devolution continues: see http://www.gov.yk.ca/aboutyukon/yukontoday.html, the Yukon government’s site, for details of its political history inside Canada.

  44. cameron said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:18 pm


    I think I have a coat in my closet at home with an English label reading "Made In Ukrainia" inside. I bought it maybe seven or eight years ago, I think.

  45. GeorgeW said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    @Matt Keefe: "Neither Lebanon or Yemen, however, use the article in Arabic."

    A minor correction: Yemen does have the definite article in Arabic.

  46. Joshua said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

    In French, there's a different oddity as to definite articles before country names. Almost every country is referred to with a definite article before the country name. Belgium is "la Belgique", Portugal is "le Portugal", Egypt is "l'Égypte", etc. But Israel is just "Israël" with no definite article.

  47. Lazar said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

    @Cory Lubliner: I think there's a consensus today in favor of "Tschechien" because "Tschechei" is associated with the Nazi-era expression "Rest-Tschechei", referring to the inner Czech lands annexed in 1939 (formally, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia). Another Central European oddity is that Polish ("Czechy") and Hungarian ("Csehország") both fail to distinguish between Bohemia and Czechia.

    @DaveK: I've also seen "Ukrainia" in some texts from the post-World War I era – the days of the Ukrainian People's Republic. Many of these texts also charmingly refer to the "Bolsheviki" who were running Russia.

    @Brett: Many European languages use a Latin feminine name for Jordan – French "Jordanie", German "Jordanien", etc. Why this didn't catch on in English, I'm not sure.

  48. dalriata said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

    @Brett: Jordan is a good point; I always think of it as a shortened form of Transjordan where the "trans" became redundant due to Cisjordan having more specific names. I'm not sure if that tracks the historical usage.

    @Victor Maurice Faubert: While Yukon is a Territory, it used to be just a territory (and hence more often arthrous).

    @Lazar: That oddity sounds reminiscent of how some English speakers often refer to The Netherlands (there's another!) as Holland. Bohemia has been the dominant region in Czechia (that could grow on me) for a long time, right?

  49. Levantine said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

    dalriata, related to your Holland/Netherlands example, think of how common it is (even within the anglophone world) for people to refer to the UK as simply England.

  50. marie-lucie said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    French Israël without an article:

    The new state was officially named (in English) "Israel", not an invented name but an existing personal name, unlike the names of other countries. Personal names do not normally take an article. It would have been plauible to give this state the more "country-like" name "*Israelia", and the French counterpart would probably have been *l'Israélie, but that is not what happened. In any case, the citizens are called les Israéliens, just like the citizens of l'Italie are les Italiens (and similarly for most country names ending in ie).

    (the) Yukon

    Even though (to my surprise), the territory is now officially "Yukon", no longer "the Yukon", it still has the article in French: "le Yukon".

  51. Martha said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 2:35 am

    "I think it's not about whether you associate the name with a geographical feature, but whether you are referring to a region or an independent country:"

    Do people think of countries as regions, though? I don't think of the Sudan or the Philippines as being regions. But I call them "the Sudan" and "the Philippines" because those, in my mind, are their names, just like I never talk about Beatles.

    I'm pretty sure that before reading the comments here, I'd never heard "the Yemen" or "The Lebanon."

  52. Vanya said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    I would wager a hryvnia or two that >99.9% of Anglophones haven't the foggiest idea of any semantic association between "borderland" and "Ukraine"

    Of course not. I find it a little sad that Ukrainians feel such a strong need of affirmation from a culture that has rarely had much direct contact with (or interest in, even more sadly) Ukraine historically. I suppose it is simply a testament to English's entrenched role as the Global Language. Meanwhile Germans continue to say "Die Ukraine", and Poles continue (mostly) to say "na Ukrainie".

  53. Philip Cummings said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 4:05 am

    In Irish, use of the article with country names depends on the gender of the noun used for the country name: feminine nouns take the definite article; masculine nouns take no article.

  54. RP said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 4:21 am

    Although someone linked to a post that said the reason for "the Philippines" was that it was the name of a region and short for "the Philippine Islands", I must admit that I analyse it a bit differently: I just think that all country names that are plural in form (even when they take a singular verb) have the preceding article. Is there any exception to that? Perhaps all of these plural-form names did originally have an omitted or understood "Islands" or similar, except for the Netherlands where the noun is the "lands" that has been joined to the preceding adjective.

    "La France" is arthrous in a slightly different sense than "la République française". The former will drop its article in numerous situations (notably "en France", "de France" – although "de la France" is also possible with a slightly different meaning: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=13968 ) where the "the" wouldn't be dropped in English (we would always say "in the Netherlands", "of the Netherlands") nor would it be dropped with "République" (you'd have to say "de la République" not "de République").

  55. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 7:28 am

    I'm Brazilian but there was a lot of early Ukrainian immigration in my homelands, as Ukrainians might surmise from my surname. The standard, regular Portuguese adjective for "Ukrainian" is ucraniano, but many families back there used ucrânio instead. The word itself now makes me nostalgic, especially if pronounced with the telltale strong (trilled) [r] and non-nasal, backed [ɑ].

    Tragically, by the time I was born my family had already gone native & I had almost no contact with Ukrainian language or culture. I recall a trip to the town of Rio Azul, Paraná in the 90s where I saw people still speaking the language on the streets. Here's a recent, rural radio program about a young (4-year) bilingual speaker. (Gods this accent takes me back.) I wonder how she sounds to modern native Ukranians? Small samples at 1:13, 1:29, 2:02, 2:26, and her cousin's at 3:15. I wish they would let her speak at length.

    @Joshua: re Israel without article in French: Likewise in Portuguese. We use "the State of Israel" when needing an article.

  56. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    By the way: Brazilian Portuguese ucraniano = [u.kɾɐ̃.ni.ˈã.nʊ] ; whereas accented ucrânio was something like [u.ˈkrɑ.njo].

  57. Joseph F Foster said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 8:07 am

    Re 2 or 3 things recurring through this thread:

    The Yukon ~ Yukon as pointed out above is a Federal Territory, not a Province, although its actual structure and status are undergoing some flux. But it still has a Commissioner representative of the Federal Government (although not any longer "Head of Government". He is not the Representative of Her Majesty the Queen of Canada "in Right of (the) Yukon", unlike the Provinces who are in this sense "co-sovereign".

    Note that English speakers of North America do not try to order French speakers of North America to stop saying le Canada ou / et la Louisiane. The idea of Ukranian speakers whose language has no definite article telling English speakers how we should use ours is more international prescriptivism than I am willing to put up with.

    ' u kraina' 'at the border, edge, extreme, outer limit, …. and the meaning is indeed transparent in Russian.

  58. un malpaso said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    Looks like Russia is "Putin" "Assad" his old friends to focus on the Crimea….

  59. David said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    Coverage in the press…


    “Ukraine is a country,” says William Taylor, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. “The Ukraine is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times … Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it is just Ukraine. And it is incorrect to refer to the Ukraine, even though a lot of people do it.”

    I doubt it's anything to do with the Soviets, though; consulting google:


    "the Ukraine", although on a steady downward trend as proportion of all mentions of "Ukraine" until independence (when it started to plummet), has been the most common usage for a long time.

  60. Elisabeth said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    How much of the phenomenon of the come-and-go definite article is the result of shortening an older name? To take the example of "Yukon" versus "the Yukon", the full name of the region was given to me in school as "the Yukon Territory", parallel with "the Northwest Territories" next door. I always assumed that "the Yukon" was simply an abbreviation.

  61. un malpaso said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    Actually, as for the comment thread topic… off the top of my head the only countries (or regional names, in some cases) I can think of that automatically (in my speech) get the "The" treatment are: The Congo, The Phillippines, (or, I guess, any plural island country.. Seychelles, Maldives, Solomon Islands, etc…), The Crimea, The Ukraine, The Netherlands, The U.K., The Emirates, The Gambia.

  62. naddy said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 11:31 am

    In German, all country names that are not neuter (i.e. all that are masculine, feminine, or plural) require an article. The choice of article or no article only exists for neuter names. As far as I know, none of the independent countries of the world that are neuter in German—most are—take an article, but some regions do: das Elsass (the Alsace).

  63. RP said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    In keeping with the region/country distinction, I think that if someone said to me "the Congo" I would think they meant either the region that encompasses both countries or perhaps the river, whereas if they said "Congo" I would think they were referring to one of the two countries with that name but not both.

  64. BobC said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    Let's not forget "The Bronx." (So should the Yankees be called "The The Bronx Bombers?")

  65. Bob Ladd said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    There's definitely a tendency for English speakers to be more worried about this kind of thing than speakers of other European languages, and for nationalists and governments in other countries to be more worried about what places are called in English than in other languages. Within the past 20 or 30 years English speakers (and publications) have abruptly switched from Moldavia to Moldova, Byelorussia to Belarus, Peking to Beijing, Bombay to Mumbai, and many more, often (in the case of publications) under official pressure. But in German Moldova and Belarus are still Moldau and Weissrussland, and Beijing is still Pechino in Italian and Pékin in French, and nobody seems to worry much about it. The attitude expressed by Joseph F. Foster a few comments higher seems to make a lot of English speakers nervous, but is effectively taken for granted by speakers of other languages.

  66. D.O. said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    OK, apparently Crimea River attained a degree of prominence after the pun was deployed by Ann Coulter. Has everybody else got it right away? I am not following her and apparently the splash was not large enough and the waves didn't reach me. The only English-language joke relating to Crimea I new before is about a Western politician who began his speech on the peninsula with the words "Dear Criminals" (it doesn't work in Russian or Ukrainean).

  67. Lazar said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    @Bob Ladd: Yeah, I've noticed that as well. Another example is "Romania", for which most major European languages still use forms like "Rumänien", "Roumanie", "Rumania". "Puerto Rico" is a curious case, as Americans have abandoned the antiquated spelling "Porto Rico" (which is current in French and Italian), but they largely still pronounce it as if it were spelled that way.

  68. Joseph F Foster said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

    Re Lazar’s comment just above about Rumânia v. România,

    I still spell it with a *u*, and so do Rumanian speakers who write or until recently wrote with the Cyrillic alphabet, thus

    Румыніа and not * Рoмыніа.

    The actual history is a little complex but it basically envolves a political and historical reconnectionism policy of trying making the name look more “Roman” overriding a sensible consistent spelling consistent with the linguistic facts.

    Linguistically, the spelling R u m â n i a makes more sense and is consistent with pronunciation (pace any school- or government enforced back formed spelling pronunciations). Latin unstressed /o/ became Rumanian /u/, as for instance in many many forms like the following:

    Gloss ‘buys ‘I / we know’ ‘doesn’t know’
    Lat. comparat cognósco cognóscum non cognoscet
    Rum. cumpără cunósc cunoáştem nu cunoáşte

    For 'good' we had Latin bon- and have
    Italian buon-
    Spanish buen-
    French bon-

    But Rumanian bun.

    So in this case, usual English writing, at least in the United States, has been to follow the Political Correctness spelling prescribed by the Rumanian government. But linguistically and factually, the French and Germans are right.

  69. Joseph F Foster said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:16 pm


    I apologize for the scrunching of those Rumanian and Latin verb forms in my comment just above — I haven't figured out how to make this comment program keep things aligned when I hit Submit.

    Also — the Latin 1st person singular ending is not *-um, but -emus.

  70. GeorgeW said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    FWIW, the New York Times, at least in recent articles, has dropped the 'The' and uses a bare 'Ukraine' and 'Crimea.'

    I haven't taken the time to check if this was the case in the past.

  71. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    @ J. W. Brewer: I don't know enough about Ukrainian itself (and Russian), but Polish seems to stick to na Ukrainie, literally 'on Ukraine'. Some other Central European countries get the same treatment (Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary; but not Russia or Czechia or Romania or Austria). But it's not a region vs. country thing, at least not in an obvious way. Regions vary, and even some Polish regions get w 'in' rather than na. The two types of subdivisions that are strongly in favour of na are city neighbourhoods (with the exception of those that actually include the Polish equivalent of district or neighbourhood) and islands (but e.g. w Irlandii, not na).

  72. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    @ Joseph F Foster

    Also — the Latin 1st person singular ending is not *-um, but -emus.

    If you mean 1st person plural, corresponding to cunoaştem, then surely it's cognoscimus?

    Also, does cumpara definitely come directly from the Latin? The normal Romanian reflex of com- is cu-. Could be that the /m/ was preserved before a labial, but then what about cuprinde?

    Could be from Italian, but then you'd expect /com-/, as in comporta from the French.

  73. Jeff said,

    March 8, 2014 @ 10:20 pm

    In Spanish the current guideline from the Real Academía Española is that the article is optional before some countries. They even provide a handy list!

  74. Jessica Schein said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    Crimea also lost the "The." after the breakup of the USSR. It is officially now in English "The Autonomous Republic of Crimea."

  75. Bob Ladd said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    @Joseph F Foster, @ Lazar

    It's definitely accurate to say that Romania(n) is a deliberate modification to remind the world of the country's Roman roots. I'm not so sure about current pronunciation – spelling pronunciations can take hold pretty fast (cf. also sunt and sînt in present-day Romanian). Also, while it's true that German and French (and Spanish) have kept the older form, Italian is about 50-50 between romeno and rumeno for the nationality adjective.

    In French and Spanish the problem is that if you changed the vowel of the first syllable of the adjective, you would get a pre-existing word meaning "Roman". Sp. rumano / romano and Fr. roumain / romain are minimal pairs. In Italian "Roman" is romano, so changing rumeno to romeno isn't a problem.

  76. RP said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 10:26 am

    @Jessica Schein,
    To be precise, Crimea did not lose its "The" but rather its "the". We wouldn't capitalise the "the" when writing "the Crimea" or "the UK". So, the RAE (in Jeff's link) is right to draw a distinction between those place-names where the article is an intrinsic part of the proper name ("The Hague") and is capitalised, and those where although an article is used, it isn't part of the proper name itself. (The same is true of French. If the official name of France was its short form, presumably the article would not be a part of the official short form: for we'd write the "la" in lower case.) Similarly if we were writing a table with a list of country names and (say) corresponding populations, we'd have "United States" without an article, but if it was a list of towns, "The Hague" would have its article, being an inseparable part of the town's name.

  77. Joseph F Foster said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    Re your first point re 1st person plural Latin, you're quite right. I shouldn't try to do these things late at night.

    Re the etymological phases and steps of cumpăra 'buy' ,
    now that you point that out, no I'm not certain. Yes, 'with' cum the Latin adposition shows up in Rumanian as cu without the final sonorant, just as Latin per is apparently the source of the modern Rumanian objective particle pe. And as you point out, the cognate of Spanish comprender and French comprendre is cu-prinde without the -m. (Note to readers: Rumanian cuprinde means 'contain, include' and not 'understand' like its Western cognates.

    The Latin prefixed form of the 'with' word was usually coM-, with the obviously related adpositon (post position in early Latin, preposition later) form having the high vowel /u/, ergo cum. So if it was borrowed into Rumanian from Italian, the vowel should be /o/ while if a direct descendant of prefixed, {com-}, the vowel would be the expected /u/ but the nasal would be gone. There are a number of other Rumanian forms like this — cumnat 'Bro – in – Law' being one.

    There was some borrowing from other Romance languages and from Latin deliberately in the 19 th century as some of those conscious borrowers actually tried to nativize — i.e. tried to alter the borrowed form so that it would be like a native form had the native form remained in Dacian Colloquial Latin to become Rumanian. So this may have been one of those forms borrowed but in nativized form. This of couse means that those Rumanians doing that borrowing were fully aware of the Latin to Rumanian /o > u / shift.

    There is another possibility. I believe that in some Southern Italian dialects, some if not all unstressed o's have also become u's. So we hear "compare" for the more usual compare. But if cumpăra were borrowed from Italian, we might expect it more likely to have come from the NE through Istria.

  78. Jongseong Park said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    I seem to remember reading in an English-language book about Korea dating from the pre-1910 period (19th century or early 20th century) instructing its readers that "the Korea" is not correct and that it should simply be "Korea". These days, it would surprise that "the Korea" could even have been considered a possibility more than a century ago.

  79. windy said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    The Time article linked above mentions a similar controversy about spelling the name of the capital: "Kiev" versus "Kyiv". Is there a difference in the English pronunciation?

  80. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    @ Joseph-

    Very interesting, thanks. Particularly that bit about consciously 'Dacianising' Romance borrowings. It seems to run the opposite way from the historical tendency in e.g. Spanish, of prescribing learned words direct from Latin over native Spanish words from the same root that have evolved under the normal laws, e.g. afección v afición.

    With Romanian, I'd been assuming I could use the expected sound changes as a reliable test for whether they were original or learned Latin words. But I guess I'll have to be more careful…

  81. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

    But re cumnat, I don't think that's a reflex of com-. Isn't it a regular change of the /gn/ in cognatus, probably pronounced [ŋn], to /mn/ – as in semn, demn, lemn, pumn etc.

  82. Bob Ladd said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    @Pflaumbaum, @Joseph F Foster

    Re cumnat: yes, /mn/ comes from /gn/ in this one.

    Re "Dacianising" vocabulary: yes, when Standard Romanian was developing in the 19th century there was a lot of discussion about how to adapt Latin-based words (an excellent account of the astonishingly deliberate creation of Standard Romanian is Elizabeth Close's 1974 book The Development of Modern Rumanian (Oxford Univ. Press)). However:

    Re o / u alternations: this is not a specific sound change in Romanian, but part of a general feature of mid vowels in Romance generally. In lots of Romance varieties, standard and otherwise, there are alternations and variability between o/u and e/i in unstressed syllables. This gives us, for example, surname doublets in Italian like Napolitano / Napoletano; orthographic conventions for the pronunciation of e and o in Catalan and Portuguese; paradigm alternations like Romanian pot 'I can' vs. putem 'we can'; and, of course, the availability of the forms Rumânia and rumân for nationalistically-motivated phonological meddling.

  83. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    @ Bob-

    Many thanks, I'll definitely check that Close book out.

    Given that historical linguistics has developed rather a lot since the 19th century, does that mean there are fossilised errors where they got the wrong idea about a sound law?

    For example, if I remember right, Romanian also partook in the Romance tendency of stressed /e/ and /o/ towards diphthongisation, resulting under certain conditions in ea, oa and also ie, as in fier. But there were various waves of metaphony, diphthongisation and harmonisation, and a lot of the time the effects are hidden by subsequent changes. Navigating all that to produce a 'correct' native form wouldn't be easy.

  84. Nathan Myers said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 3:07 am

    I still call it Wallachia, what some of you call Romania. But perhaps I am slow to adapt.

  85. Mirielle said,

    September 26, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    Regarding the older Spanish place name Porto Rico (whence English Porto Rico and other non-Spanish place names with some kind of /o/), see this article:

    Gold, David L. 2012. "The Politicization of a Monophthong: A Refutation of All the Puerto Rican Myths About the Native Spanish Place Name Porto Rico." In: Estudios de Lingüística Española: Homenaje a Manuel Seco. Félix Rodríguez González, ed. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp. 215-268 (with summaries in English and Spanish).

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