Definite countries

Only a few country names are accompanied by the definite article in English. These include the UK, the USA, the Netherlands, the Gambia, the Sudan, the Ukraine and the Lebannon. In some cases the definite article is only used occasionally – Sudan and Lebannon, for example, usually manage perfectly well without it. Why some countries are more definite than others is a bit of a mystery. Any suggestions?

In Welsh only some of countries have the definite article, though not the same ones as in English. Examples include yr Ariannin (Argentina), yr Aifft (Egypt), y Ffindir (Finland), yr Almaen (Germany), yr Eidal (Italy), yr Iseldiroedd (the Netherlands), yr Alban (Scotland), y Swdan (the Sudan), y Swistir (Switzerland) and yr Unol Daleithiau (the United States).

Most countries have the definite article in Irish, with the exception of Alba (Scotland), Ceanada (Canada), Cúba (Cuba), Gána (Ghana), Iosrael (Israel), Lucsamburg (Luxembourg), Meicsiceo (Mexico), Maracó (Marocco) and Sasana (England)

This entry was posted in English, Irish, Language, Welsh.

17 Responses to Definite countries

  1. AR says:

    I have never heard of the Sudan, the Ukraine, or the Lebanon. In English we don’t use articles with proper nouns very much. Are they used in other languages though? I know a girl from Russia who moved here and is learning English. She refers to people as THE [person's name]. Is this just a mistake, or is stemming from a practice in Russian?

  2. Bill Walsh says:

    The reason is that the time these names passed into usage, they were geographical regions rather than states. Sort of like small versions of “the Levant” or “the Antipodes.” As they’ve become countries, most of them have lost the “the.” Lebanon, Sudan, etc. Ukraine is officially “Ukraine” now, at least in diplomatic argot, for just this reason. The Netherlands (originally including Belgium, “the Spanish Netherlands”) seem to have successfully held onto their article, I’d guess because it’s a plural. As for the U.S., the UK, the U.S.S.R., the UAE etc., they’re all definite instances of a certain type of structure: states, kingdom, republics, emirates, etc.

    Oh, and here’s one that you didn’t list but probably knew: the Iraq. Used to be the Persian Iraq and the Arab Iraq. Basically the flatlands from Mesopotamia east. When Sykes and Picot were drawing lines, the Iraq and the Lebanon all of a sudden became Iraq and Lebanon…

  3. TJ says:

    In Arabic, most of Arab countries names have definite articles, but not all. Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Oman do not have articles in their names in Arabic. However, most of the european countries don’t have definite articles when their names are said in Arabic, but there are few exceptions like for Holland. When we say want to say Holland we either say “Holanda” (no definite article) or as in english we say “the netherlands” or “the lower lands” this is because the name is not foreign but it is a title (or a complete name with noun and adjective so we can add definite article to it).
    Also, Hungary is called “Hangaariaa” (no definite article) or we call it “Al-Majar” (with definite article) but this is weird because “majar” comes from “magyar” in Hungarian which is still not an Arab word anyway! But seems the name is originally used to denote the “people of Hungary” or the Magyars, then this name is used to denote the land of Hungary in general!

    Some people get mixed up with the name of Germany in Arabic. Germany is called “Almaaniaa” so some people think that “Al-” here is the usual definite article of the word, but it is in fact part of the name and the name of Germany never comes with definite article in Arabic!

    Sweden, Norway, Danemark, Austria, Bosnia, Herzogevenia (right?) these countries come with definite article in Arabic, but I don’t know why!! Great Britain comes without article, but if you are saying “UK” as in english, it comes with definite article!

    By the way, a funny story comes from the name of Austria in Arabic. Austria’s name in Arabic is “Al-Namsaa” and this name comes originally from turkish. They say when ottomans invaded europe and reached Austria they bombed the cities with cannons and they barely faced any resistance!! so then the soldiers started to ask each others: Naam sa? (are they sleeping!!?) and then this word is said to be going on as the name of the country (and maye til this very day in turkish) in Arabic!

    Bosnia in Arabic is “Al-Bousnah” and the name originally was (from turkish too) “balad Al Boshnaaq” (land of Boshnaaq) …… seems the word has some meaning in turkish as well!

  4. If I understand right, there are no definite articles in Russian, which I’m sure could cause confusion to Russians learning English. On the other hand, in Greek the article is nearly always used with proper nouns, thus η Ελλάς, “Greece”, ο Βενιαμίν, “Benjamin” ο Σίμων, “Simon”, etc.

  5. Zachary R. says:

    I’ve never heard of the Gambia/Sudan/Ukraine/Lebanon either. For the US and UK, I find that I use ‘the’ before them because they are composed of regular words (as Bill said), while Netherlands has the word “lands” at the end, which by default I’ll add ‘the’ before the general name since it usually represents more than one land (e.g. the Falklands).

    In French they have articles for every existing country (defined by either a feminin or masculin article), I’m going to guess all the other romance languages also?

  6. Declan says:

    Is Switzerland the only country in German that takes the definite article? And do the Swiss (well the german ones) themselves refer to their country with that article?

    In Irish, I didn’t know that Alba didn’t take an article. But then, I never really refer to it. Éire doesn’t take an article either.

  7. Jared says:

    I never saw Lebanon with the definite article. Can anyone explain why states with names that do not reflect their structure (lthe way the United States of America does) would even have a definite article?

  8. TJ says:

    Jared: maybe because the name of the country was originally in the past an adjective used to denote a group of people then transformed into a name for a whole land. Adjectives can have definite article as wel!

  9. Sam says:

    As far as I can tell, definite countries are often plural. The Netherlands probably refers to more than one nether land, just like the Philippines refers to more than one Philippine and there is more than one state united in America.

    Singular nouns in English are most often used with an article or a pronoun. I can’t think of a situation where I would refer to “kingdom.” A person might refer to “a kingdom” or “the kingdom” or “his kingdom,” but never just “kingdom.”

    Here in the USA, we refer to regions such as the Midwest or the South. I suspect the same follows in other English-speaking countries.

  10. Chibi says:

    Declan: die USA, die Niederlande ;) Same as English.

  11. KT says:

    I wish I found this site MONTHS ago! One day this question just popped into my head: Why is the the Bronx called ‘the’ Bronx and nowhere else is? It’s not “the Manhattan”, “the Queens” … I never did figure it out. It makes sense that we call it ‘the US’ because there are definite states that make up (the United States of) America so it needs the definite article. I guess the real question is, what’s a Bronx?

  12. Simon says:

    There’s an explanation of why it’s called ‘the’ Bronx and the origins of the name Bronx here.

  13. Ernest Adams says:

    Older British people still say “the Lebanon” and “the Sudan.” I’m not sure why, but it may well reflect (as already suggested) a period when these were geographic regions that were part of larger administrative units. In the case of Sudan, it was occupied jointly by the British and the Egyptians for some time.

  14. Seraphim Winslow says:

    Does anybody know if a system like the definite/indefinite article system exists in any other languages beside Indo-European and Semitic ones?

  15. Daniel says:

    Saraphim, it does exist in some other languages, closest to me being Hungarian. See for example a downloadable PDF (search for “definite articles”) here:

  16. Robert Budzul says:

    I remember reading once that the definite article with countries was used if the country was also the name of a river or mountain. Or was that for German? Can’t remember now.

    Certainly it was always ‘the Ukraine’ for some reason… Another mystery. I still find it rather strange that Ukraine has decided that it’s belittling to be called ‘the Ukraine’ and so has changed it’s name.

    But what really amazes me is the following: How can a country tell the English, Americans, Australians etc. how to pronounce it’s name or what to call it.

    Is it logical that China can tell the English-speakers what to call Peking/Beijing, but they don’t bother telling Russians what they should call it, so they can continue to use Peking… I think people would laugh if the English decided that they didn’t like the characters that were being used for certain English towns and so felt the need to tell the Chinese how to speak their own language.

  17. Lily says:

    Dear Mr. Budzul,

    Times change, you know. Now Ukraine, which as a matter of fact is my native country, is independent and there’s no reason why you should refer to it using a definite article. And about your phrase that “why should smb tell the Americans etc. how to refer to a country”, you can still use “the Ukraine” if you are an ignorant person and don’t care much about the feelings of others. Anyway, choose whatever you like, it’s just that I don’t understand some people who are stubborn enough (or incapable) of learning a new name!