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Obama said The Ukraine not Ukraine tsk

Old map of Empire Russe with Russia and the UkraineOn the subject of spinning the debates…
 
Did you hear about Barack Obama’s horrible gaffe in the first debate?! According to public radio, Obama referred to “The Ukraine” instead of the less diminutive “Ukraine” sans-the. PRI’s The World trotted out tsk-tsks from a Ukrainian-accented expert who derided Obama for his un-PC insensitivity to her country’s post-Soviet independence.

Self-respecting nations don’t require “the” to distinguish them apparently. “The” is only for provinces or regions, the expert explained. The Balkins, the Riviera –I can’t remember her examples. Certainly you wouldn’t say The France, unless you were referring to the ocean liner. How undiplomatic for Obama to malign poor proud “Ukrayina.” The would-be statesman [in evident need of more experience] should come visit, suggested the expert. But the report revealed [Instead] Obama was campaigning in Ohio.

Shall we look into what the Ukrainian expert didn’t explain: why English speakers unconsciously need to add “the” before Ukraine? Is it simply because we used to, when Ukraine was a part of Russia, and then a member of the USSR. But we didn’t say the Georgia, or the Belorusse…

Unless we meant THE Republic of Belarus. But that rule applies to every formal title. Then also we say the United States, we say the UK, and we say the People’s Republic of China. We say the Netherlands, but not the Finland, nor the Afghanistan. We do not add THE to any of the -stan states, which was a Russian suffix meaning “land.” Perhaps as we don’t use THE for nations ending in -land either.

We say the Philippines. We say the the Maldives. There seems to be a pattern related to territories in the plural. So it’s nothing to do with client states but rather collected lands.

As usual, I’ve entertained myself before doing the research.

1. The Ukraine
Is the Ukraine (I can’t help but say it that way) a reference to plural regions? Or is there some other idiomatic pattern which governs usage for English-speakers? The answer turned out to be the former.

Apparentely, Ukrayina is named after the Old East Slavic for “border region.” The Territories of Ukraine were the old Russian empire’s western edge. Perhaps this suggests why Ukrainians want to be considered their own land, and not part of someone else’s.

There, the expert is right. A historically geographical name does not suggest a sovereign nation. The Transvaal, the Yukon, the Sahara, the Midlands on England’s border to Scotland. I think it’s interesting that no US state needs a “the,” compared to their previous incarnations as the Dakota Territories, the Louisiana Purchase, etc.

But to complicate the matter, in the Ukrainian language the word means “country.” Doesn’t it go against their own tongue to eliminate the definite article? To refer to either concept, country or border, requires “the.” At least I know it is so in English. Which is my point here.

Since their independence from the USSR the Ukraine has asserted an identity minus “the.” The distinction is for diplomatic papers. So I’m not sure that international conventions govern how foreign languages bend to suit another’s domestic decree. Germany for example is known by as many names as it has neighbors, and none of them is Deutschland.

How appropriate is it to try to mock Obama for speaking the King’s English, aka English?

Isn’t your interest piqued about other places to which a “the” wants to cling to an earlier vestige? The Ivory Coast would seem to have become an effortless Ivory Coast, maybe because the plurality of “coast” is ambiguous.

2. The Sudan
What about the Sudan versus Sudan? We know it through the English colonials as “the Sudan,” but now the post-colonial English-speaking diplomatic class asserts it’s just Sudan. I can’t help but wonder if there’s some Globalization edict for nation-state nomenclature compliance. Is it for the sake of easier alphabetization?

That reminds me of how China lined up the Olympic participants in the 2008 Opening Ceremonies. Nations were ranked based on how many strokes were required in their Chinese character. American commentators thought viewers would probably consider the order nonsensical. How much sense does it make to require state names to conform to an anglo-file system?

As an aside, is the French “Sud” for South, related to the Arabic “Sudan” for “Blacks?” Both that direction from the then-known world. Not so further aside, the French say “Le Sud” in the same way we use “the” to differentiate the destination from the direction.

In any event, in Arabic, the language of the population of Sudan, the country calls itself “al-Sudan.” Post-9/11 westerners know “al” translates to “the.” That would be Sudan with the “the.”

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