Errors & Omissions: Who are the Ukrainians to deny the definite article?

 

John Kampfner wrote in his Monday column: "Television and newspapers have focused on racism and hooliganism in the Ukraine and Poland."

The traditional English usage "the Ukraine" is widely disapproved of and "Ukraine" without the "the" is preferred. I am not sure why. The whole thing seems to me to have a whiff of modish political correctness about it.

It is generally thought that the name "Ukraine" is derived from an old Slavonic word meaning "frontier region" or "march". So it seems reasonable enough to call it, in English, "the Ukraine". I have heard it argued to the contrary that the Ukrainian language, like its Russian cousin, has no definite article. I am sure that is true, but I don't think it has any relevance to English usage. You could argue on the same basis that we should not talk about "the Kremlin".

More relevant is the fact that Ukrainians themselves, when speaking or writing English, omit the "the". The country's London embassy, for instance, calls itself "Embassy of Ukraine in the United Kingdom". But does that have to be definitive? Are native English speakers, when using their own language, bound by the preferred English usages of foreigners? Surely not. I do not know what Britain is called in Ukrainian – it's their language and it's none of my business. Similarly, English is none of their business.

Except that everybody nowadays sees English as their business. As English becomes the global language, everybody claims a stake in it. A few years ago English speakers succumbed to a disgraceful campaign of bullying from China, which made us call its capital city Beijing, rather than Peking. Since then, other cities in China and India have been similarly renamed. Even the tiny country formerly known, in English, as the Ivory Coast has successfully insisted that we use the French version of its name – Côte d'Ivoire (with no definite article – spooky coincidence!). As "Globish" English marches on, we are going to see more of this sort of thing.

Foreign rubbish: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto," wrote the Roman playwright Terence. He was writing in what some people would call a "foreign language", so I will translate: "I am a human being, and consider nothing human foreign to me."

What would Terence have thought of the following headline, which appeared on a news page on Wednesday? "Children left behind in foreign languages by the age of three."

The writer of that headline is by no means alone. In this newspaper and elsewhere people are constantly lamenting the reluctance of the monoglot English to learn "foreign languages". Well, school children might warm to languages a bit more if spared the constant propaganda about them being "foreign".

When I went to school, there were two sorts of languages: classics, which meant Latin and ancient Greek; and modern languages, which were French and German. None of them was called "foreign". Today modern languages are officially called "modern foreign languages" – known for short as MFL. What happened to the idea that a nodding acquaintance with more than one human language is part of the normal mental equipment that everybody should have?

Order! Order! A news story on Wednesday began thus: "The House of Commons is set to vote in favour of legalising gay marriage by a big majority." People often fail to spot an easy way of clearing up an ambiguity: "The House of Commons is set to vote by a big majority in favour of legalising gay marriage."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker