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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Obama: 'Like a Poland or a Czech Republic' (Updated)

I remember presidential candidate Obama saying “the Ukraine” —
with the definite article — which defines my country as a territory, not as a country.

I also remember Obama referring to the Poles and the Czechs as “fledgling democracies.”

But this quote knocked me off my feet:

Russia needs to understand our unflagging commitment to the independence and security of countries like a Poland or a Czech Republic. On the other hand, we have areas of common concern.

Call me a nitpicker, but I had never heard the indefinite article applied to Poland or the Czech Republic in a context like this. Never had I imagined it being applied by a U.S. president, much less by a former chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs.

Now, I’m not a native speaker of English and I'm not a stranger to different schools of thought. But I just wonder how countries “like a Canada or an Israel” would feel?

Because I’m a smalltime Ukrainian who lives in a smalltime country that gave up the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal for chicken feed, I view Obama's remarks as a Bittergate.

I just had a light bulb moment!

I do remember a case of Ukraine and Georgia being used as countable nouns — in a geopolitical context, by a senior official/politician!

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Vice Speaker of the Russian State Duma: Your country and economy will collapse. And what will NATO do? Georgia: Immediately there will be war with Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. That's why NATO will never accept you, Ukraine and Georgia. And then there's a more important scenario. Suppose everything is fine in Ukraine and Georgia. But we here think that it doesn't benefit us. And never will NATO trade Russia for one hundred Ukraines and two hundred Georgias.

I guess perestroika must be about to start in America, just Zhirinovsky expected.



Blair Sheridan said...

Got to be honest with you, Taras: it wouldn't bother me at all, were Canada be referred to in as list of similars as "a Canada."

Michelle said...

As a native English speaker, I can say that I think it is odd and a little weird. I think it will get weirder...sorry....

Tom Adshead said...

This is more a question of English idiom - it's a sort of shorthand for "for example" or "a country like". So he might say: "We have higher expectations of stability from a France or Germany than from a Poland or a Czech Republic."

It's not related to the common mistake of talking about "The Ukraine" which annoys me.

Anonymous said...

Taras, in this case, you're being too sensitive.

The phraseology he used is quite common, and is intended to make it clear to the listener that the speaker is referring to examples, and that there are other examples besides the one mentioned.

It's also used in other contexts, such as in sports.

For example, putting this in the context of soccer, one might say: "The Ukrainian soccer team could sure use a Pele or a Eusebio."

It means that they could sure use players like a Pele or a Eusebio - players of the same caliber.


Anonymous said...

When using the indefinite article like that, an English speaker is indicating a category that includes the countries in question. So when Obama says "a Poland," he means Poland and countries like it. Whether that includes Ukraine is another matter--the locution lets him get away with a certain vagueness. In fact, I'd say he's backing down from Bush's stance on Ukraine, Georgia, etc, but without quite saying it.

Taras said...


Imagine a Canada that occupies Ukraine's geographic position and lacks NATO membership:)


You're absolutely right! It’s getting weirder by the day!


Thank you for upholding the correct usage!

I do understand the meaning of articles, and I think it’s a far more interesting case than “the Ukraine.”

So I Googled for “country like a France,” “country like a Germany,” “country like a Canada,” “country like an Israel,” but I didn’t find many valid examples.


The sports context slightly differs from the geopolitical one.

While we can use the indefinite article to pair soccer players of comparable skill, there’s only one Poland, one Czech Republic, one Canada, and one Israel.

Of course, we can pigeonhole these countries based on their geopolitical/vote-buying/quid-pro-quo value in Washington. I think Obama did just that — inadvertently.

Now all I can do is sing, “Like a Poland, touched for the very first time…


I think Obama is backing down from his own stance on Ukraine, and he's saying it.

Anonymous said...

Taras -

It's an English idiom.

It's a valid use.

You may not be used to it, but it does not mean what you think it means, and this type of usage is not limited to a sports context.

Trust me, it's a perfectly normal and valid expression in any context.

One learns something new every day, Taras.

Taras said...

I know it's an idiom. I know it's used in a wide variety of contexts.

I just wanted to learn whether other examples of such usage existed — in this particular linguistic and geopolitical context.

So far, I haven't learned of any valid ones.

My reasonable man test: Substitute “countries like a Poland or a Czech Republic” with “country like a Canada,” “country like an Israel,” “country like a Germany,” “country like a France,” or any other country.

If you can find such examples, coined by senior U.S. officials/politicians, I'd be interested in learning about them.

The Global Game said...

I have been thinking about this post quite a lot, Taras. I think, in such cases, it is an advantage to be a non-native speaker because you think about the grammatical distinctions more carefully.

If I am right, Ukrainian, Russian and perhaps other Slavic languages lack this distinction in articles? But clearly there are other grammatical forumulas (это, "this", to convey immediacy) for distinguishing between the specific and generic.

I think Obama's usage is important. "A Ukraine," "a France" or whatever the example - such phrasing does imply, in a very subtle way, a feeling of superiority ... the idea that the United States and her leaders, in reflexive, unselfconscious fashion, believe that they can manipulate relationships to best advantage. The example of the football club considering new talent - someone like "a Zidane" - necessarily means that the club believes it can acquire such talent or a reasonable facsimile. More broadly, in epistemic terms, using "a Zidane", "a Ukraine" might mean that one believes there is no uniqueness in the world. A nation-state is an unreal entity - "a highly arbitrary conglomeration" in the words of psychologist David Barash - but, even so, such grammatical disdain points to a worldview in which nations and peoples are nothing but pieces in a board game - pieces that the powers hold at a distance, trying to keep the world as simple as possible for themselves, trying to make one out of the many.

Use of "the Ukraine" must be carelessness. Obama probably used it earlier in his campaign and then got a quick whisper, or Blackberry message, from an adjunct. He's a smart guy. He only has to be told once. I doubt he'll make the error again. Intriguing, though, that the definite article in this case implies, by historical circumstance, a sense of incorporation. In this use it suggests a region destined, gramatically at least, to be contained by something larger. Contrary to the meaning of "Ukraina", which is something like "edge of"? Has anyone referred to Ukraine as The Edge?

No doubt Ph.D. theses have been created on these distinctions between articles in English. I would not wish to read them - they probably include sentence diagrams of the kind that used to be the fashion in grammar textbooks 30 or 40 years ago. I'm sure Obama learned how to diagram a sentence. But, in his new role as "leader of the free world" (another imposed superiority), he feels empowered to throw articles about as he wishes.

Taras said...

Thank you for commenting, John!

There are two schools of thoughts on the origin of Ukrayina, which stem from two different words:

1. Okrayina, meaning “edge,” “border,” and

2. Krayina meaning “country,” “region.” U krayini means “in the country.”

It’s in America’s best interest that President Obama does not push friendly countries to the edge.