As war rages in its eastern regions, foreign reaction and assistance to Ukraine has often been questioned. Indeed, the country’s name has even been the subject of contention and controversy, as illustrated when US President Barack Obama last year referred to the country as “the Ukraine.”
Some may well regard this as a harmless mistake, while others would not detect a mistake at all.
This use, however, of a definite article, namely “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine”, has deep-rooted historical and political connotations, which have now intensified during this particularly sensitive juncture in international relations.
When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it was referred to as “the Ukraine”, the implication being that it was part of the Moscow-ruled communist empire.
Upon gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine constitutionally confirmed its name as “Ukraine”: a “the-ectomy” was thus legally performed, a lexical statement of disassociation from its Soviet past.
Some Ukrainians therefore may barely excuse a layman for applying the officially banished definite article to their country’s name, never mind a US president.
The definite article is commonly used for “the Netherlands” and “the Philippines” and such usage would often not even draw a murmur of discontent from either country’s natives. Nevertheless, the US Department of State cautiously claims that only two countries in the world that should be afforded the courtesy of a definite article before their name are The Gambia and The Bahamas.
Definite articles are widely used for geographical features such as forests, rivers and cities but their application for countries is, in most cases, wrong.
For instance, the River Congo is often called simply “the Congo” but the commonly encountered habit of describing either the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Republic of the Congo by the same abbreviated name, is somewhat hazardous and likely to cause confusion, if not offence.
In many cases, when speaking, the use of a definite article is forgiven or ignored, especially if it comes from a non-native speaker.
But for Ukraine, the symbolism is deadly serious: a grammatical expression of its independence.
So next time you’re discussing the ongoing violence in Ukraine, do yourself and many Ukrainians a favour, and drop the “the”.