Historical story

Do you use these terms? If so, be careful because they may consider you a Polish imperialist

Last updated:2022-07-25

Is it possible to be a colonialist and xenophobe without even knowing it? According to some, absolutely. It is enough ... to use the Polish language correctly.

It all started with timid questions asked to linguists by ordinary speakers of the Polish language. Because if we're going to France and Argentina, shouldn't we also go "to Ukraine" and "Belarus", instead of "Ukraine" and "Belarus"? Where did this "na" come from and what does it mean?

The case seems extremely interesting, because we use this special preposition only in relation to a small group of countries. In the book "21 Polish Deadly Sins" Piotr Stankiewicz took a closer look at this issue. And he counted:

Out of 193 UN member states we will go without much hesitation to 153 countries (to Germany, to the States, to China), and only to 40 we will use the preposition on. Most of the 40 countries, 34 countries, are islands, so we say we will go to Iceland, Cuba or the Maldives. However, the remaining six are the most interesting.

These six are clearly not a random group of Central and Eastern European countries. We say we're going to Ukraine, to Belarus, to Lithuania, to Latvia, to Slovakia and on Hungary. Language betrays us. Maybe not perfectly precise, because for Slovakia and In Hungary, according to our view, there is a completely Western civilization, but the shape that emerges speaks for itself.

Why do we go "to Germany", but "to Ukraine"?

Colonial "na"

Does the use of the preposition "na" really say anything about our attitude towards these six "distinguished" countries? Quite possible. This is because it is an exception to the rule that requires the names of autonomous territories, that is continents, states or cities, to be combined with the prepositions "in" or "to". We use the unfortunate "na", as Katarzyna Kłosińska from the University of Warsaw explains, in relation to "areas that are part of other areas".

It would follow that by saying "I'm going to Ukraine" in fact ... we are denying this country the status of an independent territory . Even worse in this context is the explanation provided by the authors of the "Dictionary of troublesome words", Mirosław Bańko and Maria Krajewska:"The examples prove that with the preposition na the Polish language connects the names of these lands, and in certain periods the countries that are in the area of ​​Poland's historical interests - in the east and in the south. "

Our language therefore reflects a certain historical awareness, according to which Ukraine or Belarus are still connected with the Republic of Poland. Even an outstanding Polish linguist, Jan Miodek, admits it. The professor is definitely in favor of the preposition "na", but adds that it does indeed introduce "an element of the proximity of Ukraine, Latvia, Hungary" and even a certain "familiarity" in relation to countries such as Paraguay or Uruguay.

No wonder that such a manner of speaking may arouse justified opposition among the interested parties themselves. Some, such as the authors of the "Report on the condition of culture and NGOs in Ukraine", even try to act to change the unpleasant "exception" for them. As they explain:

(...) we want to contribute to a revision of the cultural and worldview coordinates that "for us" and "in our opinion" are presently or still by Ukraine, which are reflected in in our opinion, colonial "na".

To change or not to change?

What do linguists say? Like Professor Miodek, they indicate that the only correct form is to go "to" Ukraine, and spread their hands. The decisive factor is… language practice and this one is unambiguous. Custom is habit, and finally:

An age-old tradition is that we go to Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina; to Germany, to Portugal, to France, to Spain; but for centuries we have been going to Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine (...).

Especially Ukrainians and Belarusians do not quite like the way Poles emphasize their ties with them.

In other, less controversial and burdened with custom cases, sometimes, however, a distinction is made between the "model" construction, consistent with the rules of the Polish language, and "sanctioned by the usus", that is, practiced so stubbornly that it ceases to be considered erroneous. In this context, Katarzyna Kłosińska gives the example of the Donbass, a region of Ukraine that has been widely discussed in recent years. The correct form should be "I live in Donbas". Most often, however, you hear:"in Donbass", which has made this expression widely accepted.

This example clearly shows that language is by no means an unchanging whole in which inviolable "eternal" traditions persist. Over time, Polish evolves, or rather - adapts to the Poles who use it. In that case, if this is custom that decides the matter, maybe there really is something to fight for? One of the co-authors of the "Report on the state of culture and NGOs in Ukraine", Andrij Savenec, argues:

If (...) we quietly and consistently change the language habit, future lexicographers will have nothing but to perpetuate the parallel norm as possible. A change in the norm may take place if we become aware of its need, as a community of Polish speakers, whom we use and whose precision and tone we care about. We aim to ensure that the language we serve reflects the content that is relevant to us in the most appropriate way .

We should definitely say "to Ukraine", because this is our age-old tradition, says Professor Jan Miodek.

It's hard to disagree with that. The more so because we have known for a long time that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world", as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in a treatise published in 1921. So we should be interested in how we talk about ourselves and about others. By the way, we could understand, as Saveneč emphasizes, "that Ukrainians, citizens and residents of Ukraine may simply care about how Ukraine is treated through the Polish language."

It must be added that this is by no means an easy goal to achieve. For example, Polish feminists can testify to this. After all, they are constantly fighting for equality in a language that still contains only masculine forms to define the highest positions, whether state or clerical. And proposals such as "minister", "psychologist" or "scientist" meet with an avalanche of mockery and cheeky jokes .

Maybe in this case it will be easier? The form "in Slovakia" was already used in the interwar period. Sometimes "in Lithuania" is also happening. Even one of the three seers, Juliusz Słowacki, wrote in "Beniowski" that "four suns shone in Ukraine". And no one pointed out his mistake.

One of those who did not hesitate to say "in Ukraine" was Juliusz Słowacki himself.

There are some language changes you really shouldn't be afraid of. In addition, it is worth considering whether they are not changes for the better. If only so that in the future Poles could not be assessed as bitterly as Piotr Stankiewicz in the book "21 Polish deadly sins" who writes that:

all this "kinsman's blood", all our supposed-sympathy and support for Ukraine is one great racism and joy that we can look down on Ukrainian women and Ukrainians from behind the superiority of the Bug and San rivers .


  1. Mirosław Bańko, In Ukraine or in Ukraine ?, Dictionary of the Polish Language PWN 20/06/2015.
  2. Katarzyna Kłosińska, In Donbas or Donbas , Dictionary of the Polish Language PWN 12/12/2015.
  3. Piotr Maksymowicz, Why is Gniezno located in Greater Poland and Płock in Mazovia? , Institute of Polish Philology of the University of Gdańsk on February 26, 2014.
  4. In Ukraine or in Ukraine ?, Polish @ Polish Dictionary e. 253.
  5. Report on the state of culture and NGOs in Ukraine , ed. Paweł Laufer, Publisher Episteme 2012.
  6. Andrij Saveneć, Debate:In or in Ukraine? , Eastbook.pl 10/10/2012.
  7. Piotr Stankiewicz, 21 Polish deadly sins . Bellona 2018.

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