Russia is a surface but other countries are spaces?

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In Finnish, that is. Garrett Wollman ("Some linguistic observations from my trip to Finland", Occasionally Coherent 4/14/2017) notes that Finnish morphology differentiates between "surface" and "interior" relationships of position and motion:

toward at away
surface allative
“on” or “at”
“off” or “away”
interior illative
(for stems ending in V)
“into” or “toward”
“in” or “inside of”
“out of” or “from”

Against this background, he describes his recent experience at the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki.

All this intro is just to explain the very first thing that struck me, in the announcements at Hartwall Arena during the World Figure Skating Championships. As you might expect if you follow the sport even casually, there are a lot of Russians competing at Worlds; Team Russia has three athlete “slots” in three of the four disciplines. (All ISU member countries are entitled to send one athlete, subject to technical qualification; countries get up to two additional slots on the basis of their athletes’ combined performance at the previous World Championships.) So the thing I noticed in those announcements: whereas skaters from every other country were introduced using the elative case (“Saksasta“, from Germany; “Kiinasta“, from China), skaters from Russia were introduced using the ablative case, “Venäjältä“. According to a Finnish colleague I queried on this, the usage of “surface” cases applies also for “in Russia” (Venäjällä) and “to Russia” (Venäjälle), although other senses still use the elative (my colleague gave the example of “talking about Russia” as taking Venäjästä). Back in 1989, an announcer at (or reporting on) a sporting event would have said Neuvostoliitosta “from the Soviet Union”, and never mentioned Venäjä, Russia, because it was the Soviet All-Union team then and not just Russian — and would be for another couple of years. (Those with long memories will recall that ex-Soviet athletes at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, competed as an international “Unified Team” as their newly independent countries had not yet managed to set up national Olympic and sports governing bodies, so the first time an official Russian national team would have competed in international figure skating would have been 1993.)

My knowledge of Finnish is almost entirely based on a Structure of Finnish course with Lauri Karttunen in 1972, so I'm appealing to commenters who know the language: Is this true? If so, are there other countries that are morphological surfaces rather than spaces? Is the difference quasi-random, as morphological variation often is? Are there relevant phonological or cultural factors, as often with such quasi-random variation? And is the difference a stable one, or has Russia changed its nature in recent decades?



  1. teemu said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:23 am

    It's true, but completely arbitrary. I can't come up with other countries that take the surface case right now but you surely know if someone is from out of town when they use the wrong case (Helsinki : Helsingissä but Kerava : Keravalla)

  2. Avinor said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:25 am

    I believe the same goes for cities, even Finnish ones: Helsingissä (in Helsinki/Helsingfors) and Turussa (in Turku/Åbo), but Tampereella (in Tampere/Tammerfors).

  3. Tene said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    With most countries you would use -sta, such as in Suomesta, Portugalista, Syyriasta, Koreasta, Meksikosta, etc. Most island countries, however, usually follow the second pattern although the first one is recommended by Suomen kielen lautakunta; Maltalta, Filippiineiltä, Kyprokselta, Ahvenanmaalta (but Japanista, Indonesiasta, Australiasta, Kuubasta, Uudesta-Seelannista). I can not think of any other continental countries besides Russia (and Belarus, Valko-Venäjältä) that would follow the second pattern.

    There is even more variation when talking about municipalities. It is not exactly random but has many irregularities, compare: Tampereella vs. Helsingissä.

  4. Cim said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    American expat in Finland here, but not a fully fluent speaker yet. This is one of the things that is explained to us in language learning courses as "it just is" (and you just have to memorize it); some people have also hinted there could be a phonological component but not seemed to know for certain. But Russia isn't the only case, though I can't think of any country-sized examples right now. The biggest that springs to mind is Tampere, the 2nd-largest urban area in Finland. A person who was born there is Tampereelta and a building located there is Tampereella. (Most cities, like most countries, use the other set.)

  5. Oop said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 8:09 am

    Similar differentiation in placenames (being in/on X) can be seen in many languages, from Russian and Polish to Finnish and Estonian to English, etc. In many cases, people can be said to be "on" a place with a name indicating an island or a country: Estonian "Venemaal" ("on Russia") vs "Soomes" ("in Finland"), but also "Moskvas" ("in Moscow") vs "Põltsamaal" ("on Põltsamaa", a town in Estonia, as the ending "-maa" means a land.

  6. Sam Kaislaniemi said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    Yup. Iso Suomen Kielioppi ('The Great Finnish Grammar', says the -lla 'surface' type may have originally been applied to names of places by water (lake, river, seaside). But that it's often hard to tell if the name has/had anything to do with such a location. In any case, Venäjä is given as the exception to the rule.

    I don't know about change over time, but a quick search in historical newspapers pulled up a few hits of "Venäjästä" from the 19th century ( , ) so it looks like variation at least was possible.

  7. Paul said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Not surprisingly, there is a similar distinction in Hungarian:

    -n/-en/-on used for "on" a surface
    -ban/-ben used for "in" an interior

    Hungary (Magyarország) and Budapest are surfaces: Magyarországon, Budapesten/Pesten.

    Most other cities and countries are interiors: Amerikaban, Londonban

    ….even other Hungarian cities, I think: Pécs -> Pécsben

    A native speaker should correct my post, however.

  8. Aniko said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:02 am

    Just a followup to @Paul's post: in Hungarian most Hungarian cities/towns take the "on" version, while places abroad are "in". It includes even places that used to be in Hungary, but are not anymore (eg Arad/Oradea -> Aradon). Pécs is actually a somewhat special case: it takes an "ett" ending used for some towns: Pécsett, but you could use Pécsen as well (but not Pécsben), and for directional movement the "on"-type endings are clear: definitely Pécsre (onto Pécs), etc.

  9. teemu said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    Etymologically, as far as I know, "Venäjä" is derived from the ancient tribe of Wends, so the reason for the irregular case will probably stay obscure forever. However, place names that end in "-maa" ("land") usually take the adessive case, and since Russia is "Venemaa" in Estonian I would suspect that the country used to be called "Venäläistenmaa" (land of the Russians) in proto-baltofinnic, hence the irregular case

  10. SP said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    In Swedish there's a (superficially) similar distinction between "in Sweden" (i Sverige) and "on Iceland" (på Island). I think some but not all other island countries are treated as surfaces in the same way.

  11. RP said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 10:00 am

    In English I think we would always say "in Iceland". But in the case of small islands that lack political independence, "on" is possible. We can say "in Guernsey" or "on Guernsey"; my general impression is that the inhabitants of the (autonomous but not independent) territory prefer "in" (effectively viewing Guernsey as a country), while outsiders often use "on".

  12. IG said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    Same is true for Russian – it uses "on" ("на") and "in" ("в") for different countries, "on" is usually used for island nations, but not all – "in Finland" (в Финляндии), but also "in Iceland" (в Исландии), and "on Jamaica" (на Ямайке) or "on Malta" (на Мальте). This language peculiarity has actually sparkled a big controversy between Russia and Ukraine: in correct Russian, it is "on Ukraine" (на Украине), but after gaining independence, some Ukrainians decided that Russians continue to say "on Ukraine" to belittle their new state, and demanded the norm to be changed to "in Ukraine" (в Украине). There's even an Internet meme suggesting we now should say "вна Украине" – a compound on "in" and "on" loosely translated as "ion Ukraine".

  13. cameron said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    The Marble Hill neighborhood is in Manhattan, but not on Manhattan.

  14. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:54 am

    In Polish, the distinction is, in principle, between countries (spaces) and (some) Polish/neighbouring regions (surfaces). Thus w Finlandii / Rosji 'in Finland / Russia' but na Śląsku / Pomorzu 'on Silesia / Pomerania'.

    This is where the Ukrainian objection mentioned by IG above originates. Standard Polish na Ukrainie seems to suggest it's a region, not a country. Other "regions-then-countries-today" in the "on" group include Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Slovakia. However, there are some outliers, e.g. Hungary (so Paul's and Aniko's comments above are interesting).

    Also, some Polish regions (notably Wielkopolska and Małopolska) take 'in'. And island states seem to vary. E.g. Iceland, Ireland, Indonesia and Japan take 'in' but Cyprus, Malta, the Seychelles and the Philippines take 'on'.

  15. Theophylact said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    I see what you did there.

  16. Theophylact said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    (Cameron, not Jarek Weckwerth.)

  17. Theophylact said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    (Cameron, not Jarek Weckwerth.)

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    I'm not sure how salient political status is to the use of in v. on for islands in English. A quick check of the google books n-gram viewer shows that "on Barbados" remains dominant over "in Barbados" and there's no obvious change in the relationship between the two trendlines at independence. By contrast, "in Jamaica" was much more common than "on Jamaica" pre-independence all the way back to 1800. Someone with more free time than I have today could come up with a list of other islands of varying sizes but all larger than Barbados and smaller than Jamaica and then run corpus searches to see how clear-v-fuzzy the size-related breakpoint between the in-usage and the on-usage is.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    In Italian there's a similar anomaly with Cuba. In general you use in for going to, or being in, countries and big islands (vado in Italia, vivono in Australia, passiamo la vacanza in Sardegna) and a for cities and towns (quando vai a Roma?, lavora a Londra, è arrivato a Chicago). But Cuba works grammatically like a town: è nato a Cuba, vive a Cuba, etc.
    Similar things are true in French, specifically with respect to Cuba but also to various other islands.

  20. Sergey said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

    In Russian this distinction seems to be split more or less by administrative vs geographic features. Even the same location would be referred to differently depending on the specific way used: "on the Urals" (geographic reference) vs "in the Yekaterinburg region" (adminstrative reference) vs "on Yekaterinburgshina" (geographic reference, "lands controlled by Yekaterinburg", even though the city itself is always an administrative reference).

    But I guess some islands are used with "in" simply because whoever translated their names first didn't realize that they are islands and the form had stuck historically. Although I guess Ireland was probably seen as a part of British Isles and/or Great Brittain, so that might be the reason why administrative prevailed over geographical, and wasn't Iceland historically a part of Denmark? In this context, the Ukrainian quest for "in" might be misguided: they believe that "in" underscores independence while in reality it might be underscoring the opposite, an administrative subdivision.

    Another interesting point is that even though the official city boroughs are referred to as "in", when used in context of the gang territories they are always referred to as "on" (with the name of the borough shortened to sound like a geograpical location, or replaced by a name of some distinct location, like the name of a movie theater, that is seen as the center of the territory).

  21. Ellen K. said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

    I would argue that when we refer to Ireland or Great Britain, we aren't referring to a single island, because we are, in each case, also including smaller islands just off the main island. In the case of Ireland, I've been to such an island. And it's just as much a part of Ireland as the large island, even when referring to the whole of Ireland and not the Republic of Ireland.

  22. Y said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    The OED shows more irregularity than exists at present, with at "particularly used of towns (with many exceptions, such as London, New York, etc.), and that in which the speaker lives (if of any size)". In Middle English both at and in were used for cities and countries.

  23. Jim said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

    "I'm not sure how salient political status is to the use of in v. on for islands in English. "

    You say "on Oahu", so there is probably a distinction between "on Hawai'i" and "in Hawai'i".

  24. ajay said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    In English I think we would always say "in Iceland". But in the case of small islands that lack political independence, "on" is possible.

    I don't know – I think I might say someone lived "on Malta", and Malta, though small, is an independent country. I'd definitely say that I had landed "on Malta" from a ship, say, when I wouldn't say I had landed "on Italy", or that I had spent a holiday "on Malta" (or indeed "on the Isle of Wight"). But I think I'd say "in Sicily" or "in Mindanao", so it's not about political independence; I think it's just size.

  25. Ian Myles Slater said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

    This isn't quite the same distinction, but there seems to have been shift in at least American English in the use of "at" and "in" with reference to region.

    In the middle of the nineteenth century people lived "at the South" (or North, etc.), in stead of the present "in the South."

    I use "south as an example because this usage got into Wikipedia with the original title of a well-known pre-Civil War novel, and a less famous contemporary painting:;_or,_%22Uncle_Tom%27s_Cabin%22_as_It_Is

  26. RP said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    I think it may be true that the notion of political independence (introduced by myself as far as English usage is concerned) was largely a red herring. After all, we use "in" not only for countries but for continents, regions, provinces, counties, towns, villages, districts, etc. "On" is for islands. Streets can be "in" or "on" depending on dialect, idiolect and possibly context.

    Thus, perhaps it is not so much whether one regards the island in question as independent, but whether one is conceptualising it as an island or rather as a territory/land/country/province/region. Following on from the point that what we call Great Britain also includes smaller islands, and so does Ireland, in fact so does Malta, so does Iceland, and so does Guernsey. In the case of Surtsey (off the coast of Iceland) or Lihou (off the coast of Guernsey), would anyone say "in Lihou" or would it always be "on Lihou", etc? I would think the latter but I do not know for certain. And conversely, perhaps someone on the Guernsey "mainland" would be both "in" and "on" Guernsey, whereas someone on Lihou would be in Guernsey but not on it?

    Perhaps this is about size too, as others argued, as it I can't readily imagine someone saying their ship had landed "on Britain", although I am not particularly au fait with boating terminology.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

    I'd interpret "on Malta" as meaning "not on Gozo"…

    German has the same distinction as English: "in" for countries, "on" for islands, confusion (usually sorted out by irregular tradition) for the overlap, and an obsolete "at"/"to" for towns/cities that is frozen in a few names like that of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (sounds really strange to modern ears).

  28. David Marjanović said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    In Russian, Russia takes "in" in its normal/modern form but "on" in its poetic/medieval one: в России, на Руси.

  29. D.O. said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

    Mixture of в/на Украине (in/on Ukraine) was changing through 19th and 20th centuries from about parity to large preference (90/10) for на (on). The trend was reversed in the 1990 because of clearly expressed preferences of Ukrainian government.

  30. Au Zéta Zuni said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 8:19 pm

    In French, locatives of masculine countries are arthrous with the usual contraction of the definite article with the preposition à: au Canada, au Japon, au Mexique. But locatives of feminine countries omit the article and use an entirely different preposition: en France, en Allemagne, en Finlande.

    Once you have learned this rule, all you have to know about Russie is that it is feminine.

  31. John Swindle said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 10:33 pm

    @Jim: Yes and yes. "In Hawaii" refers to the Hawaiian Islands, the kingdom, the American state. "On Hawai`i" refers to the Island of Hawai`i, the largest in the chain. I think it's less common than "on the Big Island" or "on the Island of Hawai`i," but in certain contexts it works fine.

  32. John Swindle said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

    In my previous comment, for "In Hawaii" read "In Hawai`i".

  33. Alex said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 10:49 pm

    For me, when referring to islands in English, in generally refers to a political entity and on to the geographical expanse. I would never say "on Sri Lanka" or "on Jamaica", but "Haiti is on Hispaniola" or "Brunei is on Borneo" are better than the alternatives with in. "In Hawaii" means anywhere in the state, but "on Hawaii" can only be the Big Island. Same for "in Malta" vs. "on Malta". I cringe at "on Barbados" as it sounds like the speaker doesn't know or doesn't care that Barbados is an independent country. Islands adjacent to the North American mainland take "on" — I would never say "in Long Island/Vancouver Island/Baffin Island". Greenland is administratively separate, so it's always "in Greenland". I prefer "in Prince Edward Island" to "on", but "on PEI" doesn't bother me as much as "on Barbados". St. John's is in Newfoundland, and there are more people on Newfoundland than there are in Labrador. Sicily/Sardinia/Corsica/Bali/other large islands which are not independent but are separate and distinct from the mainland (or separate and distinct from the other large islands, in the case of Indonesia) can go either way. Smaller islands that are part of a larger whole, such as St. Croix or Sark, prefer "on".

  34. oHpuu said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

    Nobody knows for sure how to decline a strange indigenous toponym in Estonian, Finnish or any other Baltic-Finnic language that has the same inessive vs illative dilemma. I have a proposal: the appropriate case should be on maps next to the toponym (like the mapmaker Regio put the palatalisation of the village name Albu on the map, spelling it Al'bu; knowledge of this palatalisation distinguishes locals from outsiders very well). The example of the island of Muhu is also nice: younger urban folk might even say "Muhul" (illative, surface) while the local norm is "Muhus" (inessive, space). Of the island's 52 villages, most require similarly the inessive (space), like "Koguvas" although I'm sure lots of outside people would have the intuition to say "Koguval". An exception is the village of Tamse that requires the illative but the village is exceptional as having been founded in the 20th century after the land reform divided the local baron's land among peasants, Tamse was the manor name. I believe all this has something to do with the agreement of suffixes with cases: the Finnish word for Russia has a "-jä" suffix which seems to require the illative; I can't name another country that shares the same suffix.

  35. Rubrick said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 12:41 am

    There is surely a hilarious joke to be made about a Russian topologist attending a mathematics conference in Finland, but I lack sufficient knowledge of Russian, Finnish, topology, or humor to construct it.

  36. Orhan said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 5:43 am

    In some ways, this parallels whether country names are anarthrous, like how в/на Украине parallels (The) Ukraine, and island country names with "the".

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    I need to update an earlier comment which was erroneous – I somehow misread some n-gram results (aging eyes, I guess) and got them upside down. The truth of the matter (according to the google books corpus n-gram reader) is that "in Barbados" is more common than "on Barbados" (not the other way around, as I had previously but erroneously stated) and has been more common since before 1820, without Barbadian independence making much of an obvious difference. Separately, some hits for the bi-gram "on Barbados" are false positives, i.e. they involve constructions like "the research on Barbados" (meaning the subject of the research, not necessarily the location where it was conducted) or "Perspectives of Barbadians on the Impact of OECS Membership on Barbados" where you couldn't grammatically substitute "in" for "on," and "on" would be equally appropriate for a large non-insular nation-state like Canada. It of course might also be the case that some of the hits for the bi-gram "in Barbados" are false positives as well.

  38. Riikka said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

    Finns have their own names for the neighbouring countries/people, as I suppose most of the people do. Estonia is called Viro (because Virumaa was the closest province to deal with), Sweden is Ruotsi (because Roslagen was the closest province to have dealings with) and Russia is Venäjä (apprently from old Germanic *wened, of Western Slavs, Wends, because that's close enough). Venäjä is of same root as Estonian Venemaa, and even in Finnish it also has the dialectal forms "Venät", "Vennää", and maybe also "Vennäänmaa", meaning "land/country of Vennää". Names with "-maa" – in my personal experience – seem to be considered as surfaces (e.g. Turunmaa, Turunmaalla; perunamaa, perunamalla (potato patch) just maa, maalla as "countryside").

    As already mentioned by other people, the endings the names of Finnish towns etc is very random and without much visible logic. For example, non-local people seem to insist giving the town Kaustinen a plural surface-type ending (Kaustinen: Kaustisilla), though the name is singular and locals never use plural (Kaustinen: Kaustisella); at the same time the better known town Kauniainen receives a space-type ending in plural (Kauniainen: Kauniaisissa), though the word itself is singular.

    Answering the question whether there are there other countries that are morphological surfaces rather than spaces, I let the authorities answer:
    (Tene has apparently already answered, but I have already type the stuff below..)

    The year 1958 the Academy of Finland recommended using the "internal location endings" (well, what else should I call them?) with the names of foreign islands (e.g. Malta, Nauru, Bahama, Kuuba) because those endings were more common with names of local islands, unless the "external location endings" had already been established. Year 1978 the Institute for the Languages of Finland, Board of the Finnish Language recommended internal location endings with foreign islands, but stated that with the expansion of tourism the external location endings had become more common, so one shouldn't consider them wrong; however, the names of small islands (e.g. Capri, Madeira) have since old received the external location endings. In short, the recommendation is that internal location endings are used ("in", "-ssa/-ssä", considered "spaces") in names other than 1) names in plural, 2) names of islands ending with "-maa" ("-land") and 3) names of small islands.

    The Board of the Finnish Language decided 9.10.2000 that external location endings ("on", "-lla/llä", considered "surfaces") with foreign island names have become so established that using them is acceptable. There is no (longer) a need to make a distinction whether one's talking about the geographical area or an administrative unit, tourist location or something else. E.g.:

    – Kypros: Kyproksessa, Kyproksella
    – Gibraltar : Gibraltarissa, Gibraltarilla
    – Malta : Maltassa, Maltalla
    – Martinique : Martiniquessa, Martiniquella

    Foreign country names in plural that are also islands still receive external location endings only, e.g.

    – Alankomaiden Antillit : Alankomaiden Antilleilla
    – Filippiinit : Filippiineillä;
    – Färsaaret : Färsaarilla
    – Malediivit : Malediiveilla;
    – Seychellit : Seychelleillä

    There are also guidelines of how to treat compound names (e.g. Trinidad and Tobago, Great Britain), but most of it follows normal rules so I skip that.

    Sources: ,
    all unfortunately in Finnish only.

  39. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 18, 2017 @ 10:57 pm

    Thanks everyone for the comments and very detailed information about the scope of this phenomenon. Hopefully it won't take another 29 years for me to make use of it!

  40. Geoff said,

    April 19, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

    This sounds comparable to the frequent randomness of English prepositions on these matters.
    'Where's John?' 'He's in the yard/ down at the park.'
    Latin had a special locative construction for 'towns, small islands, domus, humus and rus.' I always thought the reference to *small* islands was cute. Did the Romans have to send in the surveyors before deciding which construction to use?

  41. ajay said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    This sounds comparable to the frequent randomness of English prepositions on these matters.
    'Where's John?' 'He's in the yard/ down at the park.'

    And Scots had a special preposition, "ben", that was only used to refer to dwellings… "whaur's Tam?" "He's ben the hoose". As a noun it also means "inner house" as opposed to the "but" which was the outer room of a two-room house, where you kept the animals.

  42. Donald Clarke said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 11:46 am

    From a Finnish friend: "Interesting observation. And yes, the observation here is correct: when referring to Russia (Venäjä), you use the “surface” cases (allative, adessive, ablative), rather than the usual illative/inessive/elative. There are other countries that get this unusual treatment—although mostly those countries are islands, which kind of makes sense: e.g. Philippines and Malta. However, not all island-nations are treated as surfaces, though—Japan, for example, is treated like an interior. So I’m inclined to say the variation is quasi-random…"

  43. BZ said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    But I think in Russian, Ukraine is the only former Soviet republic that was ever referred to as "on". It was also the only one to have a definite article in English. There is a lot of speculation that this was because Ukraine translates as "borderland" which you could be "on" and not "in", but, first of all, it is not clear that this is the etymology of "Ukraine", and second, even if it is, the modern word for borderland is "okraina" with stress on the first "a" not on the "i" as in "Ukraina", so there is no linguistic pressure going on. In fact, if you do parse the word linguistically, the initial "U" is already a preposition which has meant "in", "on", "near", or "at" at different times in Russian and Ukrainian. Which is to say I don't know why this peculiarity exists (or existed).

  44. Milan said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

    German has "in" 'in' and "auf" 'on'. As in English, "auf" is commonly used for islands, though "in" is also often possible here. There is a lot of variation, with a lot of contexts where both prepositions are acceptable. Generally, the bigger and the more (culturally/politically/….) autonomous an islands, the more likely speakers are to use "in". An exception are names that are morphosyntactically plural: It is virtually always "auf den Philippinen" 'on the Philippines', not "in den Philippinen" 'in the Philippines'.

    "Auf" is also used with certain urban areas or rural settlements. The most famous example of this is probably "auf Schalke", which is often heard in relation with football club resident in that Gelsenkirchen district. In other cases, such usage is often a shibboleth that reveals outsiders. My guess is that these toponyms originally referred to hills, elations or similar landscape features.

  45. Tip said,

    April 20, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

    The two main islands in New Zealand are (officially, since 2013) called North Island (or Te-Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (or Te Waipounamu). But a New Zealander would always refer to "THE North/South Island" and use "in" for both islands (and for New Zealand as a whole). So visitors might say "He lives on North Island" but a local would always say "He lives in the North Island". "On" is reserved for offshore islands: "He lives on Stewart Island".
    For provinces/regions we have:
    – She lives in Canterbury. He lives in Taranaki.*
    – She lives in the Waikato. He lives in the Wairarapa.
    – She lives on the East Coast.* He lives on the West Coast.
    *Or more informally: He lives in the 'Naki. She lives up the Coast.

  46. ajay said,

    April 23, 2017 @ 5:59 am

    Streets can be "in" or "on" depending on dialect, idiolect and possibly context.

    I remember being taught this difference between Russian and English – a street can be either seen as a sort of trench between two sets of houses (that you can be in) or a broad flat bit of ground (which you can be on). Central Edinburgh vs. central Moscow definitely maintained the in/on distinction!

  47. V said,

    April 25, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    The "in" vs "on" issue is seen as a sociolinguistic marker in Bulgarian now, at least when it comes to certain cities.

  48. V said,

    April 25, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    "depending on dialect, idiolect and possibly context"

  49. V said,

    April 25, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

    If you want to express distance, for example, you would use "on".

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