The Argentine and Ukraine

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about the phrase “the Argentine”:

I often come across the phase “the Argentine” in older books. People are said to “go out to the Argentine” for vacation or business. Mostly, these books are by British authors. I can’t find any information about why Argentina was once called “the Argentine”—what does “Argentine” mean that it would need the definite article?

The official name of the country we call Argentina is República or Confederación Argentina. The country is named for the Rio de la Plata. Plata is the Spanish word for silver. In naming the country, the Latin word for silver, argentum, was chosen instead of the Spanish equivalent.

The usual rule in English limits the article to countries whose names are plural or include such words as kingdom and republic. For example:

the Central African Republic
the Czech Republic
the Dominican Republic
the United Arab Emirates
the United Kingdom
the United States

An exception to this rule is the country of Gambia. In 1964, the prime minister’s office issued a directive that the country was to be called “The Gambia” (with a capital T). The reason given was to avoid confusion with newly independent Zambia.

Another reader, a US resident but a native of Ukraine, mentions her annoyance at such exchanges as this one:

New Acquaintance: Where are you from?
New Resident: Ukraine.

New Acquaintance: Oh, the Ukraine.

She doesn’t understand why people insist on prefacing Ukraine with an article.

Quoted in a BBC article, Oksana Kyzyma of the Embassy of Ukraine in London asserts that Ukraine is both the conventional short and long name of the country.

The region was called “the Ukraine” in English when it was part of the USSR. Then its official name was “the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.” Now, although parts of the country are reported to be held by Russian forces, Ukraine continues to be known internationally as Ukraine, without an article.

Note: Another good reason to leave off the article with Ukraine is the fact that neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian language has a definite article.

Of course, many speakers are not going to observe the conventions. One possible explanation for the fact that some countries acquire an unofficial the is that the country name is closely associated with a geographical feature.

In English, the names of geographical features such as mountain ranges, island groups, rivers, seas, oceans, and canals are prefaced with the definite article. For example:

the Alps
the Canaries
the Rhône
the Indian Ocean
the Suez Canal
the Plata

Perhaps speakers who say “the Argentine” associate the country with the river for which it is named.

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9 Responses to “The Argentine and Ukraine”

  • Maeve

    Philip Larmett,
    Thank you for your most interesting addition to this post.

  • Philip Larmett

    As a linguist and an English teacher in Kyiv, Ukraine, I have often encountered this point.

    There are several possible reasons for these usages. I remember my father regularly using The Ukraine and The Argentine, as a result of his 1930s education, when this was standard English at the time.
    The Argentine is simply an anglicised version of the Spanish, “La Argentina”.
    By the same token, other commentators have noted the Sudan, the Yemen. l have noted the Crimea, and I have heard the Punjab (but not Bengal or Burma) from former colonial times. They were all theatres of war or conflict.

    The commentator who mentioned geographical features without a clear political boundary, is most probably correct. The Sudan is a large region in Africa, often also called the Sahel, Sudan and now South Sudan are political entities.
    The Congo is used for the whole river basin, just as the Amazon refers to both the basin and the river.
    This would also explain The Carmargue in France, analogous to The Riviera and The Dordogne (but not Provence). Geographical features rather than political divisions.
    Just as The Gambia wanted to avoid confusion with Zambia when they both gained independence in the 1960s, the Czech Republic wanted to avoid a similar confusion (with the Russian Republic of Chechnya) when it split from Slovakia in the 1990s. We had grown familiar with Czechoslovakia in English, so Slovakia was easy, but Czechia was not felt as acceptable.
    In the last year, the authorities in Prague/Praha have issued a request to be referred to as such.

    Ukraine also has an issue with the international spelling of its major river and cities: Kiev or Kyiv, Kharkov or Kharkov, Lvov or Lviv, Odessa OR Odesa, Dneper or Dnieper or Dnipro? In all cases, I have listed the Russian variant first, followed by the Ukrainian variant. It’s very clear which variant is more familiar. The fact that in English we continue to use the Russian version is problematic to Ukrainians.

    But why is that a problem? We call it Vienna (Latin) not Wien; Munich, not München; Turin, not Torino; Naples, not Napoli; Venice, not Venezia; Florence, not Firenze.
    The Italians call Paris Parigi, and Nice to them is Nizza, whereas there are two Monacos: de Baviera and de Riviera.
    And the Germans and Austrians call Lviv/Lvov Lemberg. In Latin it was Leopolis.

    So it just goes to show that some of this is just old historical usage, and that we are just unfamiliar with the new. In 10 years we will be happily saying Czechia, if Prague has its way.

  • Butt-head

    Ummm, like you guys are like really clever or something. I never learned any this on tv. I guess Mr. Andresen tried to like teach us stuff but I was too busy trying slap Daria upside of the head. I guess like the Russians were clever back in the day. As a dude in like Kiev said the Russian general, “Ukraine, you saw, you conquered!” Uh huh huh. Uhhhh. Yeah.

  • Will Robley

    I’m old enough to remember these terms being used in conversation (e.g. The Levant), by those who themselves were old enough to remember the Empire. I believe the general rule is to apply it to a region without established borders. Though of course some may just be contractions e.g. The (Belgian) Congo, or The Congo (basin). As with all English an etimological study would need to be done. I remember when I was learning Spanish that we had to remember which South American countries were preceeded by La. Any one know why that is?

  • Roman Oleksenko

    As far as Ukraine is concerned, I do not agree with “Oksana Kyzyma of the Embassy of Ukraine in London”. According to her logic, the names of ALL former Soviet republics could also be used with a definite article, but they are not. You will never hear “the Moldova”, “the Georgia”, “the Belarus”, “the Uzbekistan”, etc. The roots of this phenomenon go even deeper. Russia has historically (for centuries) claimed Ukraine as part of its territory, therefore referring to it as “the Little Russia”, “the borderland”, “the outskirts of the Russian Empire”. In the Russian language it is reflected in the use of the preposition ON, instead of IN, e.i. “на Украине” (ON Ukraine, meaning on the territory of Ukraine) instead of “в Украине” (IN Ukraine). Again, Ukraine is the only former Soviet Republic to which this linguistic phenomenon of using a different Russian preposition is applied. As far as the meaning of the word “Ukraine”, it does not mean “the borderland”, but rather “country”, “inland”, e.g. “країна” – country, “Україна” – Ukraine.

  • venqax

    This brings up some interesting questions and some inconsistencies that are probably inevitable when dealing with “foreign” things. Some of these countries formally ID or did identify themselves with geographical features. The Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo were purposely naming themselves as the republics of the Congo River and the associated area long called “the Congo”. We talk today of “the Amazon” the same way, meaning the area around the Amazon River. Likewise the Republic of The Gambia (River)and the old Republic of the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). We still do this with the Netherlands which makes sense, too. It is denoting the Kingdom of the Lower Lands.

    Others don’t necessarily fit the pattern, though. Most probably don’t know that “the” Sudan is a geographical area, and “the” Argentine makes no sense since argentine is an adjective (the Argentine what? The river wasn’t called the Argentine.) The Ukraine may be a case of complete mistakenness. Does “Ukraine” mean something like plains, or basin, or valley or something that would have made the article’s use appropriate at some point in time? The traditional theory re its etymology cites in part the meaning of the borderland, which would somewhat explain the English articIe, but a that would be really pushing it because the name Ukraine didn’t really become known in English till long after that meaning would have been lost even in Ukrainian. I don’t know. I posed a similar question elsewhere regarding the use of “the Yemen” for Yemen which I have encountered in (mostly older) British sources. Never got an answer about that, either.

    As for the adjective or demonym “Argentine” being preferable to “Argentinian” I would disagree. The English convention for the most part is that those forms are created by replacing the final A with an AN or an IAN, though there is no apparent consistency as to which gets emplyed (Canada/Canadian, Guatemala/Guatemalan, Dominica/Dominican, Florida/Floridian). That being so, it would seem that cases could be made for Argentinan or Argentinian, but simply Argentine— while common— does not really attain legitimacy. Canada—Canade, Florida/Floride??

  • Roberta B.

    I went to a public school with many students that came from a number of first or second generation immigrant families. The ethnic Ukranians referred to their parents or grandparents as immigrating from Ukrania (most likely during one of the many early 20th century conflict). I never hear it referred to that way any more.

    Also, more and more I keep hearing people or things from Argentina referred to as Argentinian. Shouldn’t the adjective just be “Argentine?”

  • Andy Knoedler

    While we’re at it, we can add “the Sudan” to the list. As you mention in your article, the definite pronoun is sometimes added because the country name also refers to a local geographical feature. In this case, as-Sudan is also the name of that general area in northeast Africa.

  • Bill

    Another one that mostly dropped the “the” is Congo, though AP says, confusingly, that “the Congo” is OK in second references, “as the construction of a sentence dictates.”

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