As my home country of Ukraine once again finds itself caught in the glare of the international media spotlight during its tense standoff with Russia, something catches my eye lately: The seeming inability by some respected news outlets to correctly name Ukraine. Specifically, the addition of that pesky definite article: “the.” As in, “the Ukraine.”
To be clear, Ukraine was once referred to as “the Ukraine” and to an outside observer, the error probably seems like little more than a slip of grammar, even if it is one that has had more than 30 years to be corrected.
To Ukrainians though, it is a reminder of the 74 years when Ukraine was a controlled state of the USSR – the vestiges of which are now threatening Ukraine's borders.
In just the past two days, I have spotted it in an article on the Canadian CTV News website and heard it on “The National,” the flagship news and current affairs program of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
I, my colleagues, my family and several friends filed reports to CTV News to correct the name of my country, and the next day their article was clean. I could do nothing about CBC’s broadcast though, as it was said on air.
I’m sure both of those instances were honest mistakes and mere slips of the tongue. But it doesn’t make it any easier to see “the Ukraine” in the foreign press when they talk about a possible further invasion of Ukraine with an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near my country’s border.
In fact, saying “the Ukraine” is more than a grammatical mistake — it is inappropriate and disrespectful for Ukraine and Ukrainians. And this linguistic bad habit has its roots in both politics and history.
In English, countries, with few exceptions, never take an article. Exceptions occur usually when a country is considered to be made up of distinct parts, such as the United States, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom — they are plural in grammatical form or sense.
Most countries, like Germany, Canada, Spain, Russia and China, don’t take an article, as they are grammatically singular.
The definite article is used when referring to a sub-part or region of a country, however. Thus we have the Fens in England, and the Highlands in Scotland. The use of the article in this case carries information about the political nature of the area of land that is being talked about.
For the same reason, it is incorrect to say “the Ukraine.” Ukraine is no longer a part of another country or empire. After many hard battles, it has become an independent, unitary state.
For Ukrainians, as speakers of a language that lacks the indefinite article (“a/an” in English) and definite article (“the” in English), it can be tough to know when to use articles — or when not to use one at all. So it can seem natural for some native English speakers to automatically throw in the definite article when talking about Ukraine.
Let’s remember some history. In February 1917, Ukraine made its first attempt in modern times to become independent, setting up a provisional government within Russia following the overthrow of the Tsar. This move brought Ukrainian political activists one step closer to proclaiming independence, in January 1918.
However, the situation in Europe wasn’t favorable for the new country. As World War I raged, Ukraine was seen as an ideal food source for the starving citizens of Germany and Austria. Seizing the opportunity, Germany and Austria brought in troops to Ukraine and forced the departure of occupying Russian troops.
With the signing of the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, this resulted in Germany and Austria virtually annexing the region while supposedly recognizing Ukrainian independence. However, the defeat of the Central Powers and the signing of the armistice in November 1918 forced Germany and Austria to withdraw from Ukraine.
That next period of independence was short-lived though: The Ukrainian government briefly allied itself with Poland, but could not withstand the subsequent Soviet assault. In 1922, Ukraine became one of the first republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It did not regain its independence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Russian war against Ukraine, which started with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, made the issue of the “the Ukraine” grammatical error particularly sensitive.
“The Ukrainian people were denied their unalienable right to statehood for centuries and ‘the Ukraine’ was used as a name for a region of the empires that subjugated Ukraine,” Paul Grod, the president of the Ukrainian World Congress, once said. “In the case of Ukraine, a unitary state, using ‘the’ is inappropriate and incorrect. The continued use of the definite article in front of the name of an independent state — Ukraine — is therefore an indirect (although often unintentional) denial of statehood.”
The English usage of the definite article in relation to Ukraine occurred mainly because of the country’s history as a part of the Russian Empire, and then as part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. Peter Dickinson, a nonresident fellow of the Atlantic Council explains that the term “the Ukraine” first entered popular usage during the Soviet era, at a time when the Kremlin was particularly eager to counter perceptions of Ukraine as being a separate and distinct nation. Between 1922 and 1991, Ukraine was officially known in English as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Old bad habits might be tough to break, but since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, usage of the article has declined steadily.
The issue of whether to place “the” in front of “Ukraine” may appear to be an obscure grammatical point, but it carries a lot of meaning, connected to the long and painful history of Ukraine’s struggle for independence. In trying times like this, it would warm the hearts of Ukrainians if people remember that this Soviet-era name is no longer applicable to an independent sovereign nation.