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A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Imperialist Definite Article

We had a quite nice discussion of this linguistic phenomenon in the comments below; it's the extraneous "The" which creeps into the names of countries like Gambia (Update!!! "The Republic of The Gambia" actually kept its IDA on Independence; "Gambia" is colloquial!), Sudan, Ukraine, etc in the language of careless and/or ignorant speakers. I personally tend toward the view that use of the IDA is ignorant rather than merely careless, because 1) getting someone's name right is an important sign of respect, viz the BBC Pronunciation Theory Of Geopolitics, and 2) in general and with only a few exceptions, these countries are former colonies, which were referred to with the definite article when they were colonies and which gave up the IDA on declaring independence (I think Justin said that if the Gorbals were to declare independence they would almost certainly call themselves the Republic Of Gorbal).

So when someone talks about "the Sudan", he always sounds a bit like he's impersonating Kitchener; there's always the ghost of "Belgian" there when someone says "the Congo". I think that the reason is that, in imperial days it was understood that "the [geographical feature]" was shorthand for "the collection of administrative districts around [geographical feature]". At independence, the new country didn't want to think of itself as a collection of imperial administrative units grouped on a geographical feature, for the fairly obvious reason that you can't build a nation on that basis[1]. Of course, the tragedy[2] is that in a number of cases these putative nation states actually were little more than a collection of administrative districts grouped on a geographical feature[Updatesee [4] below], so all they could really do for a name was drop the imperialist definite article.

Interestingly (and if anyone wants to drop this into their literary theory PhD thesis, be my guest), Conrad's story first appeared as "The Heart of Darkness" in Blackwood's magazine, but when the book was published, the title was "Heart of Darkness".

[1] Other than the United States of America, obviously[3]. But there is a genuine exceptionalism here; the USA basically invented federalism and the geographical feature in question was more or less an entire continent that they were laying claim to. And in any case, I think it has to be recognised that "The United States of America" is a crap name; I forget which American comedian it was that noted that GREAT BRITAIN!! would never have got anywhere in the world if they'd called themselves "The Combined Parishes On An Island".

[2] As I've mentioned before on the blog, I am not a fan of the kind of beard-stroking pop-anthropology approach to treating any African political problem as "tribal", or to the kind of poor man's postimperialism that analyses all such problems as stemming from the original sin of the "artificiality" of African states; particularly I really don't rate these pipe dreams of a patchwork of "monoethnic" states that various bum-talkers occasionally draw up. But one does have to recognise that plenty of problems do have an ethnic dimension, and that obviously the political expression of that problem is going to depend on how the nation-state boundaries were drawn, just as the difference between the boundaries of Germany and the distribution of the German-speaking peoples caused no end of trouble in Europe last century.

[3] Or the Netherlands, but I'm not sure this is equivalent; lots of place names in Dutch have definite articles (muddying the waters further, "la France" has a definite article in French, but not in English).

[4] A worrying counterexample to this pet theory is Sudan, because Sudan isn't a geographical feature - "Bilad-al-Sudan" is Arabic for "Lands where the black people live". Sudan's a historical entity, though, and it was being called Sudan for a long time before the colonialists arrived.
56 comments this item posted by the management 4/15/2008 02:18:00 AM

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