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Kameshwar, from Kakinada asks, "Can we say 'The Himalayas are located to the north of India?' (use of definite article) and where it should be omitted?"

Thanks for asking, Kameshwar. I wish I could give you a definitive answer to this question, because I love mountains; hills, valleys, streams, lakes, oceans - they're all wonderful - but give me a mountain any day and I'm happy.

I don't actually know for sure the answer to your question. However, I did enough reading and research that I think I can give you a fairly reasonable rule of thumb.

The first stops in my research were the Encyclopaedia Britannica website and Wikipedia. Both used the name "The Himalayas" extensively throughout their articles, so I think it's safe to say that whenever you are talking about the mountain range as an object (noun) you can freely use the definite article "the," and no one will complain.

Britannica did omit the definite article in their page title; the title was "Himalayas," rather than "The Himalayas." However, I'm not sure I'd read anything into that; encyclopedias are designed to be read and searched alphabetically, so an article of any sort would interfere with alphabetizing. You should probably follow the example they set in the text of the article, and use "the."

Now, in the course of my reading, I did learn something new (which does relate to your question, and I'll get back to that in a minute!); "Himalayas" is an anglicized version of the word "Himalaya," which means (roughly) "the dwelling place of snow."

hima = snow
alaya = abode

How did we get from the local name for the mountains to our current version? Well, English speaking people thought, "If one mountain is a himalaya, then a bunch of them would be himalayas." However, there are two problems with this reasoning:

  1. The entire range is the "abode of snow," so you could argue that the range is a singular abode, not plural.
  2. Even if you did want to pluralize "himalaya," the proper Sanskrit pluralization of it is - are you ready for this? Himalaya.

That's right; we probably shouldn't be saying "himalayas" at all; we should be saying "himalaya." There is no distinction between the singular and plural of the word.

There is a lot of literature (mostly older) that uses "Himalaya" instead of "Himalayas," but it looks like our Anglicization of the word is here to stay. Since I have a friend who visited Nepal a few years back, I thought, "I should ask him how the locals referred to the mountains - whether they said himalaya or himalayas." Here's his response:

"In the fall of 2007 I spent 7 weeks Nepal...I never recall it being described as the Himalaya only the Himalayas."

He goes on to say that he can't specifically recall a local saying it one way or the other, so we can't take his account as gospel. My gut feeling is that if he'd heard someone calling them "Himalaya," he would have noted and remembered it. So perhaps even the locals have given in to the Anglicization of the name - at least in the presence of outsiders!

Okay, what does this Himalayas/Himalaya stuff have to do with your question? 

  • It seems to be more acceptable to drop the definite article if you say "Himalaya" instead of "Himalayas." Example: My friend visited the Himalayas in 2007. vs. My friend visited Himalaya in 2007. To English speakers, the second sentence might sound odd, but our English-trained minds quickly interpret "Himalaya" as a singular region in which the plural "himalayas" reside, so it works out comfortably.
  • Did you know that the word "himalaya" also functions as an adjective? You can go to a himalaya spa, or a himalaya restaurant (where you would experience himalaya cuisine). You can also use "himalayas" and "himalayan" as adjectives, but neither flows off the tongue as comfortably; there's an elegance to the sound of the word without any closing consonant. But regardless of whether you use himalaya, himalayas, or himalayan, if it's an adjective, you do not use a definite article with it.

So, after all of that, my final summary of the answer is: when using "Himalayas" as a noun, by all means, put "the" in front of it. But if you're using it as an adjective, don't!

Thanks for asking the question; this was an interesting one to research, and seeing all those beautiful pictures of majestic mountains makes me want to visit Himalaya!

Professor Puzzler


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