On Saturdays, The Independent newspaper has a column called “Errors and Omissions”, which discusses infelicities in the language used in the paper over the previous seven days.
Yesterday it discussed the use (or not) of the definite article with “Ukraine”. Guy Keleny (writer of the piece) seems to be against omitting the article on the grounds that what Ukrainians do, even when speaking English, is irrelevant – they are not native speakers of English, and their usage, while it should be noted by us, ought not to determine our linguistic behaviour.
There are other country names whose definite article has been lost – Lebanon and Gambia are two that immediately come to mind. In the cases of Ukraine and Lebanon, these are names for places which used to form part of larger countries and have become independent: Ukraine from Russia, and Lebanon from Syria. In the case of Gambia, this is the name of a river, and river names are usually preceded by the definite article – The Thames, The Rhine, The Potomac. Geographical areas are also usually given an article – the Caucasus, the Maghreb. And in English, the Netherlands, though in Dutch the name is simply Nederland, neither ‘articled’ nor plural.
Many island groups also carry the article – the British Isles, the Maldives, the Philippines.
I have some sympathy for Mr Keleny – I used to argue against John Simpson that the adjective formed from Iran was Iranian, pronounced /ɪˈreɪnɪən/, not /ɪˈrɑːnɪən/, regardless of what Iranians themselves say when speaking English, just as we say /bəˈheɪmɪən/ for the adjective from Bahamas. I also argued that just because the Chinese were now insisting on spelling the name of their capital Beijing, we had no need to change our well-established anglicisation Peking. After all, the French and Spanish call London ‘Londres’, and we have our own spellings for many European cities, and almost all country names. Must we change them as well?
However, time moves on, and we do abandon some of these established anglicisations, as has happened with Saragossa, Flushing, and Leghorn over the past century.
One thing Mr Keleny has got wrong: the Chinese have not changed the name of their capital, simply its spelling in Roman letters. The Indian cities of Mumbai and Chennai, on the other hand, have had not just the spelling, but the names changed to eradicate supposedly colonial connotations.