Shall We Invest IN Ukraine, or ON Ukraine?

Students learning Russian as a second language can get tripped up by various grammatical subtleties – for example the difference between the prepositions В and На (roughly corresponding to English “in” and “on”, respectively).  Trained linguists handle these grammatical nuances in a businesslike manner.  There are historical and morphological reasons behind these grammatical distinctions, having nothing to do with political views, national sovereignty, or emotional attitudes.

For people without such training, however, these little grammatical matters can arouse emotions, and even lead to wars.

These people all speak different tongues, all of them equally beautiful and complex.

There are 7 billion human beings dwelling on Planet Earth, and, with the possible exception of just a handful who were born with defective chromosomes, every one of these carbon-based units speaks a complex human language, and also speaks it in prose, to boot!

And yet, here is the irritating thing:  Only a small handful of these pesky humans has any formal Linguistics training, or even understands the basic mechanics of that which they do every minute of every day.  They instinctively know how to yak yak yak, and yet are blissfully ignorant of the process which goes into their utterances.  The level of ignorance is appalling.  If you don’t believe me, then just turn to the person sitting next to you, and ask them, What is a phoneme?  What is an allophone?  What is a morpheme?  What is a bilabial fricative sound?  [inside joke among Acoustic Phoneticians!]

Odds are, unless this person took Linguistics 101 in college, they won’t have a clue what you are talking about.  More than likely, they will start to spout some nonsense about the alphabet, about written letters.  If they are an American, they will tell you that standard American English has 5 vowels.  (In actually, there are more like 20 vocalic phonemes, depending on the dialect.)  Or they will opine about what certain slang words mean.  They simply don’t have a clue, how Language actually works, or what makes it tick.  Which does not prevent them from being able to communciate quite effectively when it comes to other matters.

But I digress….

With that grumpy introduction, I bring you today’s piece from PolitNavigator, which is about the Ukrainian economy, about the possibility of foreign investment, and about the В vs На controversy.

If you recall:  During the Soviet period, it was standard for Russian-speakers to say на Украине  (“in Ukraine”, literally “on Ukraine”).  There was no negative connotation in the choice of the preposition, this was just grammar, habit, and accepted usage.

Later, when Ukraine gained independence, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, it became a big deal among Ukrainian “patriots” to insist upon the usage в Украине (“in Ukraine”).  Why was this distinction so important to the patriots?  Verify, in sooth, I do not know.  This piece gives some historical background to the dispute.  Apparently, it was okay when Ukrainian national poet Shevchenko wrote:

Як умру, то поховайте
Мене на могилі
Серед степу широкого
На Вкраїні милій…

But when Russian President Vladimir Putin pronounced the phrase “люди на Украине” (“people in/on Ukraine”), this was a terrible slap in the face to the Ukrainian people.  Something about, how if you are “on Ukraine”, then you no longer possess national sovereignty.  Or something like that.

But I digress again…

Returning to the discussion on investments..

This past week Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin announced on his Twitter that, following discussions with his Danish counterpart, Kristian Jensen,  Denmark plans to create an investment fund to assist small and medium-sized businesses “in/inside Ukraine” (в Украине).

However, Jensen himself put a slightly different twist to this story.  The way he tells it, Denmark has no intention of funding Ukrainian small- and medium-sized businesses.  Instead, the plan is for Denmark to offer 30 million Krones of credit to DANISH companies who want to do business or invest IN UKRAINE.

The author of the PolitNavigator piece, Alexander Dudchak, wonders if this is not the only utterance between Ukraine and the E.U. that was “lost in translation”.  Since people “in the Ukraine” obviously expected much much more from the EU than they are going to receive.

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21 Responses to Shall We Invest IN Ukraine, or ON Ukraine?

  1. Mao Cheng Ji says:

    Ah, yes, I read this piece. Dudchak is good.

    I think maybe ‘na’ (on) is bad because it implies the commonly perceived interpretation of the word ‘Ukraine’ as a ‘near-border area’. Of Russia, obviously. ‘On Ukraine’ as in ‘on the near-border area of Russia’. ‘In Ukraine’ as in ‘in the [separate] state of Ukraine’.

    That’s probably the context of this tremendous controversy.


    • Lyttenburgh says:

      Okay – then what about the expression “На Руси” i.e. “On Rus”?

      Example – “Кому на Руси жить хорошо?” – a poem by N. Nekrasov, which is rather incorrectly translated in Enlgish as “Who Is Happy in Russia?”. Rus =/= Russia.

      If the modern insane Ukrainian historians are trying to build their national identity in a shaky claim, that their country is a rightful and sole successor of the Ancient (“Kievan”) Rus, while Russia is just an oversized Muskovia, then they surely must embrace На/On.


      • yalensis says:

        “Slava u nas NA Rusi!” (Literally: “Glory is WITH us ON Russia!” – hee hee!)


      • Mao Cheng Ji says:

        Yeah, “на Руси”, you’re right, fair enough. Even if it sounds a bit archaic. Mysteries of the language.

        Still, I suspect they feel that “на Украине” sounds too much like “на окраине”.


        • yalensis says:

          Yeah, that’s probably part of the psychology behind it. My guess is diaspora Ukrainians making much ado about nothing, and opining on matters (e.g., Historical Linguistics) about which they have no formal training, and nary a clue).
          If they were so worried about living “in the borderlands”, so to speak, then why not just change the name of the whole country? For example, they could change the name from “Ukraine” to “Galicia Major”, or something like that.
          Now would be a good time, since they are in such a re-naming frenzy anyhow.


  2. bolasete says:

    back from my hiatus, and i see language. YEAH! personally i always favored the labial fricatives as most expressive of human interest. on sesame street they always pushed ‘q’ tho i never figured out why. i suppose if people are going to argue and look for a ‘bone to pick’ with others, prepositions are as good as suppositions or even apparitions in obfuscating cognition. so many things come down to niagara falls. life is simple that way. btw, i commend you on your prolific output.


    • yalensis says:

      Welcome back, bolasete!
      Well, I don’t watch Sesame Street, so I don’t know if they have some weird obsession with the letter “Q”. But frankly it wouldn’t surprise me.


  3. Jen says:

    Simplest explanation might be that in those Western European languages that matter to the Yukies, you would say “to invest in … ” but not “to invest on…”.

    French: à investir dans …
    German: investieren in …
    Polish: inwestowanie w …
    Portuguese: investir em …
    Spanish: para invertir en …
    Swedish: att investera i …

    Lithuanians would say “investuoti į” (“to invest to …”) but the Yukies are probably not considering Lithuanian as an ideal role model.

    The difference has more to do with the Yukie desire to emulate “Europe” and “European values”, whatever they are. Anything that the western Europeans have, that puts them as far away from Russia as possible without falling into the Atlantic, the Yukies want.


    • yalensis says:

      Dear Jen: Thank you for showing off your erudition in languages! But did you know that….

      There is a corollary to the “v” vs. “na” controversy. Each preposition in Russian has an antithesis, or opposite. The opposite of “v” is “iz” (из) (“from” or “out of”). The opposite of “na” is “s” (с) (“from” or “off from on top of”).

      So, when people are writing about people and jobs fleeing “from the Ukraine”, they have to make a similar choice whether to use из or с as the correct preposition!


      • Jen says:

        Cough, cough … I was using Google Translate.



        • yalensis says:

          Hm…. Google Translate gets better every day. I just tried to trick it, because I wanted to prove a point, unfortunately it was too smart for me:
          I plugged in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in English, and had Google translate the text to Russian. Then I took the Russian text, plugged it back in, and translated back to English. I was expecting gibberish, but instead I got back a perfect copy of the Gettysburg Address!

          Well, either computers have actually become intelligent (=dubious), or Google has a vast database of famous speeches! I even tried tweaking the text a bit, changing “Four score and seven years” to “47 years”. But it wasn’t fooled, it still knew that this was the Gettysburg Address!

          Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

          Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

          But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


          • yalensis says:

            And P.S. – yes, I know that “four-score and 7 years” is actually 87 years, not 47 years. In spite of which blunder, Google still figured out what I actually meant to say!


      • Jen says:

        I’m not surprised that prepositions are paired in good cop / bad cop style because from my own limited experience studying German in high school, prepositions require the following noun to be in the appropriate case.

        So if you “invest in” Vulture Hedge Fund A, then the appropriate case for VHFA might be accusative, because it’s an action into something, right? But if you “invest on” Vulture Hedge Fund B, then VHFB’s case should be dative or locative.

        Disinvesting “out of” VHFA would require VHFA’s case to be, hmm, genitive case? Disinvesting “away from” VHFB would require the ablative case (the case that addresses the source from which something happens) which I know no longer exists in most modern Indo-European languages and which in German would be replaced by the dative case.


        • yalensis says:

          Russian is similar to German in that respect. When something goes “into” something (with motion involved), then the object is in the accusative case. For example, “v gorod” (“into the city”, with motion involved, and “city” in accusative case). But if something is statically “In” something, then it’s the locative case: “v gorode”.
          This is obviously some ancient distinction, which both Germanic and Slavic languages inherited from their common ancestor. Must be very old too, especially given that Germanic and Slavic hail from different branches of the Indo-European tree: Germanic is kentum branch, and Slavic is satem branch, which is a very old bifurcation.

          P.S. Slavic languages don’t have an ablative case any more, just nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and locative.


          • Jen says:

            I read somewhere though that Germanic, Baltic and Slavic were close enough in grammar, some of their basic vocabulary and quirks like the use of a decimal system in counting up to 100, whereas their other relatives count on a base of 20, that all three families are grouped as a northern sub-set of Indo-European, with the southern sub-set consisting of Celtic, Italic, Indo-Aryan, Armenian and Hellenic. In this scenario, the satem innovations started somewhere in the centre of the Indo-European homeland and diffused slowly into nearby dialects which in turn pass them on to neighbouring dialects; this explains why the westernmost extremes (Celtic and Italic), the easternmost extremes (Tocharian), the early southern breakaways (Anatolian and Hellenic) and the most northerly dialects (Germanic) don’t have the innovations.


            • yalensis says:

              The “satem innovation” theory sounds plausible. God, I wish we could go back in a Time Machine with a tape recorder – wouldn’t that be something?

              Anyhow, proto-Slavic does use decimal counting, pretty much, but even so, there are some quirks. For example, Common Slavic had 3 types of numbers: single, dual, and plural. The dual case was used for things that literally came in two’s: hands, feet, eyes, etc. Then grammatically extended to anything following the number 2. For example, in “The Tale of Igor’s Host”, which is the medieval Russian national poem, when the bard writes about the “two brothers”, Igor and Volodimir, the word “brothers” is in the dual, rather than the plural. Because there were 2 of ’em.
              Even today, in modern Russian, there are relics of the DUAL case, which extends also to the numbers 3 and 4: A noun following the number “one” is in the singular, a noun following a number 5 and above is in the genitive-plural, and a noun following 2,3, or 4 is in a different case, which nowadays looks exactly like the genitive singular, but is obviously a relic of the dual case.

              Another funky thing with numbers, is that proto-Slavic (and modern Russian) had/have a completely different number for “40” which doesn’t fit the usual pattern – e.g., the Slavic word for 20 is the equivalent of “2 tens”, 30 is “3 tens”, 50 is “5 tens”, etc. But 40 is a completely different number that just comes out of nowhere: “sorok”

              Scholars think that the Slavs gave some special significance to the number 40. I think the Bible does too, like “40 days and nights”, that sort of thing, keeps cropping up a lot in the Bible. But the Slavs did this too, long before they read the Bible or became Christians. Probably just some ancient thing about the number 40 which many peoples shared.
              Maybe 40 was the most number of people in a room that you could sort of count with your eyes. I dunno.


            • yalensis says:

              P.S. – I have been reading a book about Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Ancient Egyptian was, of course, an early Semitic language, with a direct lineage to modern Coptic, I believe.
              Anyhow, in ancient Egyptian, they apparently had a dual case as well. In spoken Egyptian, plural nouns ended in the vowel -u which was the plural marker. In writing, sometimes they used the ideogram for the vowel “u”, which was a picture of a little bird. But sometimes they indicated in writing with THREE vertical strokes. Anything that came in 3 or above, was considered plural. If there were just 2 things, then it was a “pair”, not a plural, but I don’t see in my book what that grammatical ending was.

              Many historical linguists believe that proto-Indo-Hittite and proto-Semite were all the same language, way back many, many millenia. This seems plausible, and you get a glimpse of this every now and then with some very basic words which seem to be cognates in both groups. Not to mention the names of numbers. But obviously very hard to piece such a proto-language together, with the passage of time.
              Nonethess, if there WAS a proto-Indo-Hittite-Semitic language at one point, then it probably had some kind of dual case, which was distinguished from both singular and plural.


            • Jen says:

              The dual number was a feature of Proto-Indo-European and all first-generation IE languages except Latin had it.

              The Proto-Slavs borrowed some of their pre-Christian religious ideas from Iranians. In ancient times, people speaking Iranian dialects were circulating in the areas we now call Ukraine, southern Russia and Central Asia: these were the people the Ancient Greeks called Scythians, Cimmerians and Sarmatians. So they were neighbours to the IE folks who later became the Proto-Slavs. In the Middle East, the early Iranian beliefs crystallised into Zoroastrianism and that religion influenced the Jews when they were living in exile in Persia in the 500s BC.

              The Zoroastrians saw dualities in nearly everything: good god versus bad god; good versus evil; light versus dark; heaven versus hell; truth versus lies. The number 40 is significant to Zoroastrians as well, in common with the Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures the Persians came in contact with.

              That’s probably a good explanation as any for parallels in early Slavic religion and Middle Eastern religions.


            • yalensis says:

              Hee hee – are you implying that when Zarathrusta “spake” to the masses, he was actually pitching his 40-day Detox and Weight-Loss Plan?

              Seriously, the religious influence which Persian-speaking peoples had on Slavs was most certainly profound. The pagan pantheon, the idea of duality, etc., that’s all there in proto-Slavic, you still see traces of it in “Igor’s Lay”.

              I would only insert one word of caution not to fall into the “Sapir-Whorf Fallacy”, well maybe the word “fallacy” is too strong a word, of assuming that language (=grammar) and thought are intimately inter-connected. I recommend the writings of American linguist John McWhorter. In several of his works (I particularly recommend his book “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English”) McWhorter discusses the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and partially debunks it.

              The school of brilliant American linguists, including Sapir, Boas and others, came out of the Anthropology discipline and these guys THOUGHT like Anthropologists, i.e., they saw very close links between culture, thought, and language. For example, if a language had a dual case, well that meant that (1) people are more likely to believe in dual gods; or (2) people believed in dual gods, so they invented a dual case.

              More modern linguistics schools (including the school of thought which I trend to) sees language more as context-free code. In the extreme view: Languge is a code made up of arbitrary symbols, and people employ this code, in order to express thoughts which are independent of language. Under this theory: Dogs have thoughts, but can’t express them very well. People have thoughts, and CAN express them, quite well, using language.

              In this school of thought: People are saddled with the grammar that they inherit, just as they are saddled with their parents’ DNA. It’s not like you can make up a new language on the fly: You have to use what you were given, which is basically a very complex code, with complicated rules of grammar. Under this school of thought (I guess you could call it the “Semantic” school), language is simply an imperfect tool that we were handed, and we use it as best we can, to express our thoughts. Hence, language is fundamentally separate from culture, religion, and even thought.
              Oh, obviously there are influences: ’tis a subtle thing. But aside from minor influences, basically separate.
              That’s the gist of this school of thought. Which is opposed to the Sapir-Whorf school of thought.


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