By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator
What do you call your homeland? In modern English, we are used to personify our home countries as a mother – a caring and nurturing figure that raised us. However, did you know that in many languages, a home country is portrayed as a male figure?
How it all began in English
There was a period when the term “fatherland” was used in English. Emerged in the 1200s, the word predates “motherland,” which came into use in the 1500s. Derived from the Latin word “patria,” “fatherland” implies heritage, tradition, government and order, whereas “motherland” suggests nurturing and a place of birth. While the male image of the country calls for patriotism and loyalty, the female metaphor evokes a sense of belonging and love.
In other languages
Besides English, the word “motherland” is widely used in languages with Latin roots, such as French, Spanish and Romanian. Even though Russian embraces the female image of one’s nationality “Mother Russia,” the language doesn’t have a word that translates to “motherland” literally.
“Fatherland,” on the other hand, exists universally in Germanic and Slavic languages. German, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish and Czech all see their home country as a male. In German, “Vaterland” refers to one’s nationality, whereas “Mutterland,” when in use, indicates an object’s (or food, sport, music, etc.) origin.
Other than the fatherland-motherland binary, there are also gender-neutral expressions that widely exist around the world. Modern English speakers today are very used to the word “homeland.” Once with a focus on “domestic” as opposed to “foreign,” the word now has adopted the definition of “motherland” and is used more often than the other two in the recent years. In Asian languages historically influenced by Chinese, “motherland” coexists with “ancestral land,” a name derived from a culture where seniority surpasses gender and senior females borrow power from the patriarchs they marry. Prior to “ancestral land,” and before the existence of other civilizations or the concept of nation-states were even acknowledged, the territory was referred to as “the central land.” In the discussion under an Instagram post where a map visually shows how each culture addresses their home countries basing on votes, “our land,” “mother fatherland” and “grandfather-land” were also nominated.
Languages evolve over time. The influence of international trade, politics, media consumption, or the process of neutralizing a traditionally gendered language could all impact on how we view our home countries. With that being said, it’s interesting to learn about these differences and witness how one language affects another. In the language(s) you speak, what gender is your country?