A few days ago I wrote about Ukrainian racism in the context of the European Football Championship kicking off tomorrow.
In the process I drew the ire of some American Ukrainians who took exception to my calling their native land ‘the Ukraine’. One doesn’t normally think of the definite article as a word replete with offensive potential, though in this case I was aware that my provocative usage was going against the grain of PC consensus.
‘The Ukraine of what?!?’ demanded one reader. Just as I had been aware that the question would inevitably arise, the reader, a native speaker of Russian and Ukrainian, knew the answer to his question. It was thus not a straightforward request for information but the cry of a wounded soul. But I’ll still pretend this was a legitimate question and answer it for the benefit of those of you whose command of Slavic languages is somewhat uncertain.
In those languages, the word ukraina and its cognates mean ‘outskirts’, ‘borderland’, ‘march’. That’s exactly what the place always was in modern times, the outskirts first of Poland, then, since mid-seventeenth century, of the Russian Empire, later of the Soviet Union. Then the country became a quasi-independent entity after the statutory break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, and suddenly it wasn’t supposed to be the outskirts of anything. The extent of its real, as opposed to statutory, independence from Russia is a matter worthy of future discussion, but the point I wish to make now has to do with the English language, not Russo-Ukrainian politics.
The grammatical category of the article being nonexistent in either Ukrainian or Russian, in those languages the name of the country hasn’t changed since she acquired her quasi-independence. What Ukrainians wish to impose is a change in the way their land is described in the English language, and I refuse to accept that this is any of their business. In English, their country has been called the Ukraine for 300 years, and that’s what it’s still called as far as I’m concerned.
Had they actually changed the name of the place, calling it, say, Racistia, then we’d be duty-bound to follow suit. For example, Leningrad has reverted to its maiden name of St Petersburg, and it would be quaint to insist that in English it should retain its linguistic link to the father of all toiling mankind. Conversely, Peking will remain Peking and not Beijing for me because, however it’s pronounced in Chinese, it hasn’t changed its name since 1421. In any case, the English pronunciation of geographical locations has never slavishly followed their indigenous names. We say ‘Paris’, not ‘Paree’; ‘Moscow’, not ‘Moskva’, ‘Florence’, not ‘Firenze’, ‘Ingerland’, not ‘England’… disregard this last one. It’s a serious subject we’re discussing here, so levity has to be off-limits.
Diasporic Ukrainians do tend to play fast and loose with both language and history. For example, the inscription on the statue to Grand Duke Vladimir in London’s Holland Park identifies him as ‘Ruler of Ukraine’. Now Vladimir was a Scandinavian prince of the Rurik dynasty who from 980 to 1015 ruled Kievan Rus’, the first East Slavic state on the territory of what was to become the Russian Empire. The Ukraine as a geopolitical entity was at the time still half a millennium removed from being a twinkle in anyone’s eye. In other words, Vladimir was the ruler of the Ukraine, or Ukraine if you’d rather, in the same sense in which Alaric was the Chancellor of Germany.
If foreigners wish to destroy the English language using political correctness as their battering ram, they needn’t bother. We’re perfectly capable of doing the job on our own. Witness, among uncountable other outrages, the banishment of the masculine personal pronouns, invariably replaced by the third person plurals.
‘Under Hodgson every player knows their job’ was how a football writer for one of our top papers extolled the progress made under Ingerland’s new manager. Now one understands that in most instances the simple word ‘his’ would make every conscientious subject of Her Majesty roll on the floor frothing at the mouth. In fact, any film in which the egregious three-letter word is used should carry a warning, next to the one about strobe lights – for fear that the adverse effect would be the same.
But surely, this abusive word has been defanged in this case? After all, one can safely assume that every England player is a man, even though some of them do throw themselves on the ground and writhe in agony whenever an opposing defender comes anywhere close. But certain effeminate behavioural modes aside, their sex isn’t really in question.
Can we please use ‘his’ when talking about each one of them? No, we can’t. The God of Political Correctness is a vengeful god, and they is athirst.