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."

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