Country Names and "The": The Ukraine or Ukraine

When do you use an article with a country name?

Sandeep Prasanna, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 25, 2012
Episode #322

Have you ever wondered why some countries have “the” in the name and others don’t? Why is it the Philippines but simply Greece? Why is it the Netherlands, but simply India? Well, today, we have the answer.

In 2007, Miss Teen South Carolina embarrassed herself in the Miss Teen USA pageant by giving a famously terrible answer to a simple question. Buried somewhere in the maze of her response were two references to Iraq, except in both instances she referred to the country as “the Iraq.” There are plenty of things wrong with what she said, but calling Iraq “the Iraq” was especially jarring. We just don’t call it “the Iraq.” 

But why? Is it really so simple that we just don’t add the definite article “the” to Iraq? Most countries don’t take a definite article, of course, and it sounds ridiculous when you add one to them: “the France,” “the Greece,” “the India.” It’s silly!

But there are a handful of countries that do take definite articles, and there are two main patterns.

The Gambia

First,  it seems that many countries whose names derive from important geographical features take a definite article. For example, “the Philippines” refers to the Philippine islands,  “the Gambia” refers to the Gambia River,  and “the Netherlands” literally means “the lowlands.” (For comparison, think about  the names of geographical regions, such as “the Amazon” and “the Sahara.”)

Second,  we have  the United States of America and the United Kingdom, both of which take a definite article because the countries’ names describes their political organization. (This becomes clearer when you consider similar formations in many countries’ official names, such as “the Republic of China” [Taiwan] or “the Russian Federation” or “the United Mexican States.”)

For most countries’ names in English, the presence or lack of a definite article is settled. But with a few countries, there’s still a debate about whether to use “the.”

(The) Ukraine

A handful of countries take definite articles, and there are two main patterns.

Consider (the) Ukraine. Both “the Ukraine” and “Ukraine” are used in English.

It’s common to hear that the name comes from the word Ukrayina,  which means “borderland.” Based on this etymology, the “geographical feature” rule we talked about could explain the presence of the definite article in “the Ukraine.” But there’s still some level of uncertainty about Ukraine’s etymology—some people believe it to be just an ancient name for  the Ukrainian people, and some people have other ideas—so that rule doesn’t seem very persuasive here.

The geographic rule for definite articles only seems to be useful when the country’s name is obviously referring to a geographical feature. We don’t use definite articles with countries whose names now have tenuous connections to geographical features—like India (whose name originally came from the Indus River) or Indonesia (which derives from the Greek words for “Indian islands”).

The use of “the Ukraine” stirs up intense passion among Ukrainians, in fact. Some argue that the systematic use of “the Ukraine,” especially before its independence from the U.S.S.R., was used by English-language authors and journalists to subjugate the people and nation of Ukraine by demoting it to a mere region, a mere feature of the larger U.S.S.R.

A similar issue has raised hackles in the Ukrainian language itself. The use of the preposition na ”on,” before “Ukraine,” has been scrapped for v ”in,” within Ukraine. According to this site, the Ukrainian government requested the change in 1993. Russian prescriptivists, quoted on the same site, continue to demand na, based on “tradition”:

[They say] “Literary norms cannot change overnight because of any political process.”

Some have pointed out that the style guides of many newspapers and magazines, including The Economist, have explicitly required the use of “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” after its independence. (I don’t have a copy of these style guides, so I can’t confirm, but there are secondary sources online which mention the shift.)

Ukraine or The Ukraine?

A Google Ngram search can tell us the frequency of the phrases “in Ukraine” and “in the Ukraine” over the last 50 years in books, and there’s a definite shift around 1993, soon after Ukrainian independence (and the same year that the Ukrainian government requested the preposition shift from “on” to “in”) from “the Ukraine” (red) to “Ukraine” (blue). 

Based on style guide recommendations and searches, it seems best to use simply “Ukraine,” without a definite article.

(The) Congo

But what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (The) Congo’s name refers to the Congo River, which itself refers to the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom. Some sources use “the Congo” whereas others use “Congo.” The official name of (the) Congo uses a definite article: “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” similar to other definite-articled nations like “the Republic of the Gambia” (the Gambia) and unlike nations such as “the Republic of South Africa” (merely South Africa).
Google Ngram graphs show that “the Congo” is significantly more popular in published books.

“From Congo” versus “from the Congo” usage from 1800-2000. “From the Congo” (red) is significantly more popular.

However, anecdotally, people who’ve travelled to the region call it “Congo” and news outlets, such as CNN, use simply “Congo.”

Perhaps the continued popularity of the phrase “the Congo” is due to the recurrence of the imagery of the Congo rainforest (a geographical feature) over references to the actual nation. We don’t have a clear answer for this one.

So while Miss Teen South Carolina was clearly veering from popular usage when she called Iraq “the Iraq,” other cases aren’t so clear. It’s worth noting that some languages draw a bright line—French, for example, tacks on a definite article to all non-neuter-gender countries: even though “the France,” “the Greece,” and “the India” might sound strange to us, “la France,” “la Grèce,” and “l’Inde” are par for the course in France. And Miss Teen South Carolina, if you’re listening, take heart: If you were in an Arabic speaking country, you would have been right in using a definite article for “al-‘Iraq.” Just not in English.

[Note: Here’s the link to the New Yorker story I mentioned in the advertisement: The Pleasures of Being Read To]
This podcast was written by Sandeep Prasanna, who blogs about linguistics at thediacritics.com. Check out his site.

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