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"The" Ukraine

You learn something new every day, especially when you're using Duolingo...

For as long as I can remember, Ukraine has always been called "the Ukraine". That's what I thought that everybody called it, up until I started doing this course.

So I did a little investigation. Was it just me, or did other people call it "the" Ukraine as well. If so, why did they call it the Ukraine? It must be a historical remnant from somewhere or something. Here is what I found out:

When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it was a region of the Soviet Union. So at the time, that area was commonly known as "the Ukraine."

After the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine became its own country, and is now officially no longer "the Ukraine", but just Ukraine.

However, some people still remember the Ukraine back from when it was part of the Soviet Union, and still use that term, although it is no longer correct.

I thought that was interesting, how what is correct word usage can change over time like that.

November 19, 2015



I have to stop myself from writing 'the Ukraine' in both the Russian and Ukrainian courses. I'm slowly training myself out of the definite article...

I have the same issue with Lebanon, which was referred to as 'the' while I was growing up and now is not. I keep meaning to look up when and why it changed. Gambia also used to be referred to that way at least some of the time, but since it wasn't in the news a lot and I never went there, I never got into the habit of using 'the'.


It still is the Gambia, see e.g. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ga.html

I'd never heard "the Lebanon" before, that was new for me.


I think that "the Lebanon" was an incorrect hangover by transference from "the Levant", which was both the former name for the country under French rule, and the traditional geographical name for the region. During the Lebanese Civil War, British news reports tended to use the phrase "the conflict in the Lebanon" in order to report on events in the region without specifying the name of the country, which would involve ascribing legitimacy preferentially to one of the competing forces. (It was grammatically dubious but studiedly politically neutral.)


Thanks! I never realized that the country was called the Levant.


For a relevatively short period I believe, "the Levant States" roughly comprising Syria + Lebanon. The term "the Levant" as referring generally to the region is of course much older.


Huh, I really thought I'd seen it on maps as simply Gambia.


Quite possible, it's sometimes dropped, but The Gambia is correct.


I've seen it called "The Gambia" on maps and atlases. I don't know what its official name is, though.


On maps it is just Gambia.


If you look in Google Earth, it will be The Gambia, see also CIA World Factbook which I linked above. You could also see what Wikipedia has to say.


Right you are. My old National Geographic map hanging on the wall from 1991 just has plain old Gambia, hence my misconception.


@Alf42 1991? Now I want to see this map...


I agree, that would be interesting to see. I love maps :-)


Ukrainians do not like the article "the" being used infront of their countries name as it implies it is part of Russia or something. Sudan was also known for a long time as "the Sudan". Gambia and Lebanon have been known by their current article-less names for a long time now


So far as I can find out, we in Britain used the definite articles for longer (and possibly for more countries?) than American English did/does, and also, frankly, I'm just old enough that I remember them being in regular use, at least here.

The first people I ever knew who went on holiday to Gambia, which was when I was... well, certainly not yet in my teens, most definitely went to "The Gambia", not just to Gambia, and no one blinked an eye. I don't know if the 'thes' were still official then, but they were in regular use, just as The Ukraine was common parlance.

I mean, I was already old enough and ugly enough to be watching the news when Ukraine actually was a part of the USSR and Lebanon was engaged in a messy, bloody civil war ;)

Basically, I'm old enough (and British enough!) that I was exposed to those names inclusive of "the" in my formative years.


Btw, is it still "The Netherlands"?


I don't see how it can ever be anything else - anything containing a common noun, whether "the United States, the United Kingdom, the Mariana Islands, the Czech Republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Netherlands" needs an article to be a proper noun, I think.

  • 1864

I believe the reason for using the article in "the Netherlands" is different: New Zealand or Finnland have the same common noun but lack articles. The actual rule applicable here is that whenever the name of a country is plural, it gets an article: the Netherlands, the Philippines.

As for (the) Ukraine, this is a politically loaded issue: https://thediacritics.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/theukraine-or-ukraine/


OK, so I don't need to feel old about that one. :-)


Two provinces: Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag are located there too.

Edit: This is the answer on "Which part?" (of the Netherlands).


It is. And don't call it "Holland".


That I didn't know, except that I know where Friesland is and it isn't there. Looking it up in Google Earth, it's the part along the coast between Zeeland, which is the part next to Belgium with all the rivers, and the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer which separate it from Friesland. So you can safely say that Amsterdam is in Holland.


"Holland" is part of The Netherlands, right?

And thanks for more confirmation that I'm not as old as I thought. :-)


I never remember them (Ukraine, Gambia, etc., though not Lebanon) being without the article either.


And there's the irony. To that end they would have been better off keeping it. To a native English speaker the "The" actually has the effect of distinguishing them as a unique entity.


The Sudan also


Well, that is still correct. The official name of the country is "The Republic of the Sudan".


Yeah, my instinct is to refer to it as the Ukraine too.. It was a bit of a shock when that was rejected by the course and I had to look it up to see if I was mistaken...


I think I knew in my head that it wasn't what it was called any more, but like you say, instinct? I used the article. I have to think about it to make myself just say Ukraine, it feels weird!


Same :) as if someone said that it's now "I live in United States".


That doesn't work! Don't do that to us!


I'm sure Russians and Ukrainians wouldn't mind :)

("What is article? Article is not need. We speak language without article, it work just fine.")


Yes, but I'm not Russian or Ukrainian. I'm a native English speaker. :)


Yes, that would make me double take!


It happens to us all. Or at least most of us.


Usage changes with time. People used to say "the Sudan", but you'll very rarely hear that now. Ngrams is very useful for tracking such changes over time. In the case of Ukraine you'll notice two points where the proportion of people using "the" dropped. Not coincidentally they are around 1917 and 1991. In interpreting the results you need to keep in mind that any match for "the Ukraine" will also match "Ukraine".


And "the Sudan" is a geographical region, rather than a country. The official name of the country is "the Republic of the Sudan".


I believe that in Russian, a similar change is taking place about which preposition to use.

If I remember correctly, older usage was на as with regions and newer usage is в as with countries.


The change took place in some official documents where pleasing rather radical Ukrainian politicians is important. Otherwise, using «в» is still considered a mistake—most likely, because politicians do not change the language as they please (and thanks god). This usage is slowly creeping into speech, too, but that's all there is about change taking place. You may consider «в Украине» a nice touch of the Ukrainian dialect of Russian, which was a blatant mistake 15 years ago but is now considered okay-ish by a number of speakers, especially inside Ukraine. As for «на», well, this usage is consistent with other -ина-ending places, and is also not unheard of (if you are talikng about the ancient state of Rus, it was «на Руси»).

As a consequence of poorly educated politicians making bold proposals on how language "should" work, our course does not have any sentences with "in Ukraine". Being older than 15 years old I cannot honestly accept both prepositions as equally correct (you can check the dictionary, damn) and only accepting the one that has been used the last 100 years would raise meaningless holy wars I have no wish to participate in. It isn't really a question worthy of such attention. So, Ukraine is now a country that is somewhere real close—but no one "lives in Ukraine" or ever "goes to Ukraine". Long live the politicians who do not know what they are talking about.

Fortunately, no one seems to object about using "na" with Ukraine in Polish, so if you ever going to learn that language, you are saved the hassle of choosing the suitable one.


Please don't take this as a statement about your "rightness" or "wrongness" in a debate. But I'm not sure I agree with your argument. The part where you say "politicians [make] bold proposals on how language should work" you seem to suggest that it's some unique blunder. Whether the Polish, Ukrainians, or Russians have a viewpoint on the word choice, does it matter who is correct? Language is always being shaped and molded by politics, culture, and the technology we use to communicate.

If you think back 100 years ago, would the term "LOL" be considered English? During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s words like "colored," "❤❤❤❤❤" and a slew of other nasty ones were used with political and cultural zeal to suppress African Americans. Now ask a black person in America about the "n-word" and they'll say it's an acceptable form of expression in black culture. Who would have thought? Words like "y'all" or "ain't" have entered English forever. But for decades - and much to this day still - they were considered dialectal flavors of the uneducated southerner. They're not going anywhere now, and sometimes people use them for humor or appeal.

Do you think they're blunders or part of language evolution?

I may be biased, but I don't think changing the way people refer to Ukraine (vs. "The Ukraine") is really a negative. It's just a shift in the way people think and feel about their identity.

I'm not trying to say you can't have an opinion on it, I'm just looking at this from the view of hearing 9 different languages a day (I live in South Florida) and I wouldn't say that everyone is all too worried about who speaks with the most historical accuracy. It's just about who gets the message across. (By the way, they are: Russian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, English, Spanish, Quechua, Creole, French, Japanese).


That is true. The change is slow, though. The inconveniece I feel is that certain word usage starts being blamed for being "wrong on many levels". I would rather start using the form I prefer without drawing much attention to it. It is how it usually works: for a while, both forms coexist. Then the older for gives way and becomes increasingly associated with grannies in their seventies. Then it becomes history.

Instead we have it like this:

Learning Russian in 2002:

"Мой друг живёт в Украине"

"It is «на Украине». At least, that's the idiomatic form"

"But my friend says so!"

"Well, in Russian it is «на Украине». It is a traditional usage affected by Ukrainian. Probably you friend's speech has some influence from «в Україні»—I heard, they indeed say that in Ukrainian these days. Dunno, I do not speak Ukrainian."


Learning Russian in 2012:

"Мой друг живёт в Украине"

"It is «на Украине»"

"You racist fashist imperialistic sh1+! My friend says you are all wrong! Saying на Украине is an offence to Ukrainian identity and means you do not treat it respectfully. All state names should be used with «в», because Ukrainian TV says so."

"The idiomatic form actually said is «на Украине». By the way, you can check with the dictionary."

"Who cares! That's not what they say in the Ukraine anyway"

"It is in Ukraine "

Not a desired effect at all. After all, you can hardly expect the overwhelming majority of native speakers (read: anyone outside Ukraine) to change their use of a popular word—and not within one generation, within a couple of years. It does not help much that, whereas nobody gives a damn about Ukraine in the U.S., in Russia we very much do. You might imagine that the name of the neighbouring country that many have friends or family in, comes up quite often (of the 15 people in our office, two are from Ukraine). I am pretty sure I do remember how "in Ukraine" has been said since I was born because it has been said a lot :)

As a person designing the course, I had a difficult choice to make because, on one hand, I should not teach the usage that "might become acceptable in future"—on the other hand, there is too much heated argument associated with the correct usage. This is why I consider the influence harmful in this case: had it been not for political debate, it would have been enough to say that we stick to standard Russian as spoken in Moscow/St.Petersburg, which might be different from Ukrainian Russian, American immigrant Russian, Russian in Israel or whatever. After all, what's wrong about Ukrainian Russian being slightly different? They say "I miss you" as "Я скучаю за тобой" while in Russia only «Я скучаю по тебе» is considered correct (or, who cares, it is pretty much the only form used in Russia)...Sadly, it does not work that way.


Much of the former USSR seems to be grappling with this, from what I can see, having spent a decent chunk of 2014 in Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, they use Кыргызстан even if they are ethnic Russians or native Russian speakers (and most in the capital use Russian most of the time -- I never learned Kyrgyz because I never had any use for it, really, to be frank). However, in Russia, Russian speakers still seem to use Киргизия, even government officials making speeches (ex Putin on Victory Day when listing out the former Soviet Republics and thanking them for their service). I have also noticed some older people in Kyrgyzstan (even ethnic Kyrgyz) use Киргизия.

In Kazakhstan, many people still call Almaty (Алматы) by its older name, Alma-Ata (Алма-Ата), including people I know who were born and raised there. Funny enough, I've spent enough time with older Kazakhs that I now switch between the two based on the age of the person I am speaking with or even just what comes out of my mouth at the time. :P


There is more: while Estonians don't seem to mind Russians calling their capital Таллин (rather than Таллинн) anymore, many Belorussians still insist that their country is called Беларусь in Russian instead of Белоруссия. To me, that looks like an inferiority complex - some got rid of it, while others did not.


I think we are discussing what is standard, educated usage. Are ain't and y'all (or my local variant, youze) covered in the Duolingo English courses? Should they be? I don't think so. That said, the whole Ukraine issue is clearly radioactive and best handled with kid gloves vis-a-vis our linguistic interests. I learned that Kiev is no longer spelled Kiev in English. Now it's Kyiv. That breaks all rules of English spelling, but who cares? Not taking sides here, just making a point about usage and convenience. Ukraine and any other nation has every right to be called whatever they like.


I think y'all and ain't should be covered in a unit on non-standard English, regional variations, etc so that second language speakers ain't confused when y'all hear it. :P

As far as which to use in Russian, I tend toward the older usage, myself, but it is nice to know the background behind the issue.

When it comes to the spelling of that city, I use Kiev. The only people I know who use Kyiv are a bit politically radical and might also use Womyn and Corea for "women" and "Korea." Okay, not quite that bad, but still.


Wikipedians have decided that Kiev is the main pronunciation for English, I think you can use freely it as well. Other languages happen to be more lucky than English as they aren't forced to use the Ukrainian pronunciation (even Polish).

  • 1864

It's not about English per se. My personal reaction is to just to ignore the calls for changing spelling and pronunciations. Firenze is Florence in English, and Москва (Moskva) is Moscow. Nobody seems to be making a big deal out of it. So let's apply the same (uniform) standard to Bombays and Kievs of this world and stop this tidal wave of nationalistic rubbish. No one is telling people how they should be calling their cities, but please don't go around telling us how to call them either.


It's just a debate about linguistics and, hopefully, not radioactive. My grandparents are from Ukraine and yet here I am enjoying both Russian and Ukrainian courses. When a debate about correct language usage pops up, often people spend a lot of time debating what's correct. But to what end?

Why shouldn't "ain't" and "y'all" be included in a Duolingo course? Are you suggesting that if one sets about learning English that slangs, idioms, and other eccentric elements of American English aren't necessary?

From a teacher's point of view, you might be putting those people at a disadvantage. Truth be told, the concept of prescriptive English vs. non is really arbitrary and up to the social norms of the time. Who really speaks prescriptive? Phrases like "Where are you from?" or "Where you going to?" are incorrect, but would you rather people say "From where do you come?" Or why not both?

Those are mild when considering when to choose "him" and "me" or reflexives like "myself." If they aren't used correctly, how much of the message is lost? How much is contextual, convenient, or correct? There's a custodian who works at my school who always say "more better" or "more smarter." Of course one should be highlighted as correct, but that doesn't mean the other should be left to collect dust.

And if that's acceptable, why not an abbreviation of "you" and "all?" We allow other contractions pretty regularly: "it's, you're, they're" all receive acceptance yet they're completely unnecessary. The word "ain't" is no longer indicative of southerners in the 21st century. Is it a step-child of our language or just another piece of conversational language? If you venture into any major city (north of the Mason Dixon or south), you'll eventually encounter it. So maybe it's not bad to have it taught as slang that only works in extremely casual settings among friends.

Anyway, I am sorry for the rant. I could debate language until the cows come home, but I also know the subject is not everyone's favorite. I agree with much of what you said, but where we diverge (and that of Shady Arc as well) is that I don't see it as political correctness or abuse; I see it as just a typical shift in how we speak to each other.


Mark Twain used the word "ain't" within dialogue in his novels. Plenty of books use "ain't" and "y'all" within dialogue. His work is considered classic American literature, and I would hope anyone who is fluent in English would be able to read and understand it. :)


The perspective of a learner of Russian:

I am English. Americans, Australians and others frequently use my native language in ways that would be considered incorrect in my own country (and occasionally insist that theirs is the only correct way to speak English). To insist that English as it is spoken in England is the only correct form would be a disservice to anyone learning English, whose goal is presumably clear communication with as many native English-speakers as possible.

There are now many native Russian-speakers in countries other than the Russian Federation. Although naturally Russian as spoken in Russia must form the basis of this course, where the standard usage differs in other countries, I would like this course to include and discuss this variation.

This is not an opinion on who gets to determine what is "correct usage" overall. In each country, the usual/official usage in that country must be considered the correct form there.

But, particularly where the issue arouses hot emotions, I want to know about these differences. Not because I want to start a political discussion, but precisely because I do not want to get involved in such issues. I don't want to accidentally say something that may be interpreted as having a political agenda when I am trying to make a simple factual statement.


In each country, the usual/official usage in that country must be considered the correct form there.

Russian has no legal state status in Ukraine, so if I understand it correctly ukrainian government shouldn't officially care about what something sounds like in Russian.


You guys are in even worse boat right now than Russians because you are clearly a minority on a major scale. I dare to say that American English has outgrown the British version.

I get your point about knowledge, but I am with Shady_arc on that. It's better to avoid politically loaded things in the course altogether.


I don't want to discuss politics on Duolingo (it would be totally inappropriate).
Likewise, I don't want to accidentally make a political comment, that is completely unintended, by using the preferred usage for one location inappropriately in another.


The thing is that anyone who will make an attempt to provide additional information on this kind of issues will always end up between a rock and a hard place.


The answer about "на/в" is actually very simple: "Украина" came from "окра́ина" ("outskirts" [of the Russian Empire]) and "окра́ина" can be used only with "на" ("я живу на окраине города"). It is quite logical that people from Ukraine don't want the name of their country to remind this fact...


"На Украине" is believed to be influenced on Russian by Ukrainian language. While now it's natural to say "на окраине", in the older times it could be normal to say "в украине" especially if you mean "украина" as a geographical region "The Borderlands" (compare "на пограничье"/"в Пограничье" - this works even now).

The more strange is the fact that some ukrainians feel uncomfortable of this influence and resemblance in Russian so even has got rid of it completely in their own language.


Leave it to politicians to make such a huge deal out of something so petty.


It's always easier to say for a foreigner :-)

  • 1864

“Nationalism is an infantile thing. It is the measles of mankind.”
― Albert Einstein


"usage на with regions" is not correct. There are several republic or solitary regions inside Russia and we use в with them, not на


Yes, for Russian "в" is a normal version in this case (Я живу в Америке/Канаде/Росссии). But I think, that in Russian language "на Украине" is a traсing from Ukrainian language (maybe even from time Kievan Rus'). Compare with Ukrainian poetry by Taras Shevchenko:

"Як умру, то поховайте

Мене на могилі,

Серед степу широкого

На Вкраїні милій:"


Only "на Украине" is correct for me. The old "на Руси" sounds perfectly correct too and not offending in Russia so why would that not be?

The way someone says something in a place that is not and doesn't want to be part of my country and that is actively working against my native language as their official one should not dictate the way I speak in my native language in my homeland.


Was ancient Rus ever the name of a distinct country, with defined borders? Or does it have a more vague meaning - "lands of the Russian people"?

Distinction: the English monarch is "King (or Queen) of England" i.e. the nation defined by the borders of the country; the Scottish monarch is "King (or Queen) of Scots" i.e. the nation was defined by ethnicity, current borders being not immediately relevant.

(The distinction anciently had considerable consequences in terms of how feudal obligations worked, but now is of purely technical interest.)


I am not sure and I no longer trust such old history. I'm afraid it has become almost as trustworthy as fairy tales. Each era seems to add a new layer and even the supposedly original sources of information are not as certain as they may seem.

It could be a set of princedoms. Maybe united at times.

Looking at your two examples I think, that reference to the soil was more prevalent.


That is interesting. In English, it mainly turns up as "the kingdom of the Rus" i.e. land defined by the people (as with the Scots). Hence my question.
Of course, when we are talking about such distant times, the opinion of foreign writers becomes even less reliable...


This still sounds about right to me :-)

Interesting question and something to think about, but I just don't know. I didn't even know about your example of the English king vs. the Scottish king. I wonder what has led to this difference.

The opinions of foreign writers can be interesting too because the more sources you have, the easier it becomes to figure something out.


Русь is currently still used as a poetic name for Russia, is it not? (In the same way as the English use Albion for England.)
Has this always been the case in Russian literature, or did the phrase re-enter the language in a particular period?


Rather poetical, yes. Never anything official, but it can be found in songs. In order to answer your question properly I would have to make an analysis of the old poetry. I don't think it was very acceptable during the Soviet times but it is possible in the historical stuff. For as long as I remember myself it was okay and didn't feel as something re-entering the language.

Let me quote this already old song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESkdQ572pvw

Edit: Something I have googled now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZRmYRxAllY

Edit II (but you will have to listen in this one): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7Sm30oMXHY


"The Ukraine" is probably a holdover from when Ukraine was a region of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. One would refer to "the Ukraine" as one would refer to "the midwest" or "the south" in America. Now that Ukraine is a country, it's more proper to use it without an article.


In Canada, there are now three northern territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. All are a little funny in their lingo. Although linguistically plural, the Northwest Territories is, in fact, a singular entity and, for most of its history was referred to as The Northwest Territories. Oddly, its commonly spoken of today as NWT, so, it lost a "the" and "upgraded" a W. :) Up until about twenty years ago, Yukon was another of those places with a determiner: The Yukon. That fell out of favour about the same time as The Ukraine. Nunavut, which means "Our Land" "The People" in Inuktitut, was created from part of NWT in 1999. For a very brief time, people in the south toyed with "The Nunavut," but, it quickly disappeared.


I wish I knew more about Canadian English.


I still say "The Ukraine" although, I will reconsider it now. I also still call it "tinfoil" despite the fact that it is not longer made of tin.


I still say "Peking", at least sometimes. (I don't often have occasion to talk about the city.)

It's difficult to force language choices on people, as Shady_arc pointed out above.


I have no doubt this is caused by confusion among English speakers. They are confusing Ukraine for "the Yukon," so they call it "the Ukraine" because it sounds similar. There is no "the"! It's just Ukraine. So. Freaking. Stupid.

  • 1864

And what about "the Gambia"?
I must say, I am utterly annoyed by people trying to load linguistic accidents with political garbage. I am not saying you are doing it, but in the case of (the) Ukraine that became a cause célèbre for Ukranian nationalists.


‘The Ukraine’ is an archaism these days. The Gambia is their official name in their official language - English. I’d always be content people call themselves or their country whatever they damn please in their native tongue :)


Although I'm not going to pretend to know exactly why people started calling it that, I know that they really hate it. I am from Ukraine, my family is from there, and we truly hate it when people call it "The Ukraine." It's not. It may have been "The CCCP" but it's NOT "The Ukraine."

But, if I may wager a guess, it may also have to do with the way people pronounce "Ukraine" to begin with. They often say "YOO-krayn" instead of "Yoo-KRAYN", emphasis towards the end.

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