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  • Writer's pictureYelena McCafferty

Mind your language

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Commenting on the current situation in Belarus after the presidential elections, one radio pundit described this particular area of Eastern Europe as sensitive and controversial. That reminded me of linguistic controversies with another country in the region: Ukraine.

When I studied English professionally at University, we were taught to say “the Ukraine”. However, in modern use the article has been almost totally dropped and to me that feels absolutely natural now. I no longer need to watch out not to forget that article because if anything, saying “Eurovision in the Ukraine” sounds totally awkward. It was back in the early 1990s when the USSR collapsed, that Ukrainians categorically insisted on the world calling their country Ukraine.

That’s just one controversy though. In the Russian language there is a dispute as to which preposition to use to denote movement to and from the country: на/в Украину, с/из Украины. In Russian we use one of two prepositions depending on the linguistic tradition. For example, we will say на Запад (to the West), but в Соединенное Королевство (to the United Kingdom).

Russian scholars say that the norm is to use the first version: на Украину and с Украины. Ukrainians argue this is an implication of Ukraine being treated as a borderland (окраина) because this is the set of prepositions we would use with this particular word (на окраину, с окраины). The issue is quite a few scholars do believe the word Ukraine comes from окраина which would have predetermined the initial use of prepositions.

While I am comfortable saying I have never been to Ukraine (no article), I can’t say Я никогда не была в Украине, for me it sounds unnatural so I will stick to the language tradition – Я никогда не была на Украине. At least neither Russian nor Ukrainian has articles, it seems the argument has instead taken shape of prepositions.

From Purnell's Concise Encyclopedia of Geography
When the Ukraine was part of the USSR

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