Identity crisis: motherland or fatherland?
In 2015, people across the globe commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In Russia, the grand public holiday that marks the end of this ‘Great Patriotic War’ (Velikaya Otechestvennaya voina/Великая Отечественная война in Russian) is one of the highlights of the calendar year. Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy/День Победы) celebrations are almost unrivalled in their pomp and circumstance: on 9 May this year about 16,000 troops are expected to parade on Red Square to commemorate the Soviet victory and acknowledge their forebears, the defenders of Mother Russia.
Mother Russia and Uncle Sam
‘Mother Russia’ is closely connected to the word that Russian speakers use most frequently to mean ‘homeland’: rodina (родина), usually translated as ‘motherland’. Perhaps more important than the fact that rodina is a feminine noun (indicated by its final –a) is its stem rod- (род-) and its variants, which link to family, birth, and procreation, for example in the noun roditel’ (родитель, meaning ‘parent’) and the verb rozhat’ (рожать, or ‘give birth’).
Rod– is also found in narod (народ, ‘people’) and priroda (природа, meaning ‘nature’), these powerful connections arguably making the word rodina more emotive to the Russian ear than ‘motherland’ might be to an English speaker. Soviet propaganda posters of the Second World War era rallied support with the slogan za rodinu! (за Родину!, or ‘for the Motherland!’). The spirit of the nation was personified by ‘Mother Russia’ (Rossiya-Matushka/Россия-Матушка), in the same way that Uncle Sam had earlier come to represent the US. Many statues that commemorate those who fought in the Great Patriotic War take the form of Mother Russia, such as the behemoth ‘The Motherland Calls’ in Volgograd.
The Russian equivalent of ‘fatherland’, otechestvo (отечество), is rarely used beyond the realm of political rhetoric. Nor is the word otchina (отчизна), which carries a similar meaning to otechestvo but is actually a feminine noun. Russia, it seems, is very much a woman.
Land of my fathers
‘Fatherland’ can be linked to the same era, having featured heavily in newsreels about Nazi Germany. The German Vaterland was used in wartime state propaganda and nationalist rhetoric, and some commentators have observed that usage of the word has declined in the seventy years since the end of the Second World War. Nevertheless, Vaterland does appear in the lyrics of the German national anthem: Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit; Für das deutsche Vaterland! (‘Unity and justice and freedom; For the German fatherland!’). A German speaker might also refer to his or her home country as Mutterland (‘motherland’) or Heimatland (‘native land’), with the former suggesting familial ties.
Germany isn’t the only ‘fatherland’: the Estonian equivalent isamaa (isa means ‘father’) appears in Estonia’s national anthem, and Vaterland is sung by the Swiss in the German lyrics of their national anthem, Schweizerpsalm. Wales is often referred to as the ‘Land of My Fathers’, as the title of its national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Nhad meaning ‘father’) suggests.
However, when it comes to talking about the land we call home, things aren’t always so straightforward. In English, someone who loves his or her country is a patriot – a word that derives from the Greek patrios, ‘of one’s fathers’. In many Romance languages, the closest equivalent to ‘homeland’ shares this root: la patrie in French, la patria in both Spanish and Italian, and a pátria in Portuguese. Despite their masculine roots, all of these nouns are feminine, and can be translated as ‘fatherland’, ‘motherland’ or ‘homeland’ depending on the context in which they are used. Just to add to the confusion, French speakers also use the phrase la mère patrie: a feminine noun phrase that includes both ‘mother’ and a noun that has its roots in ‘father’. Literally, ‘Mother Fatherland’!
Connections to fertility
So what can we conclude? When to use ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland’ in English is largely down to individual interpretation. ‘Father’ carries connotations of strength and power, while the word ‘mother’ is habitually linked to love, nurturing, and fertility: although Wales is the ‘land of the fathers’, its island of Anglesey was historically known as Mam Cymru (‘Mother of Wales’) thanks to its fertile soil and abundant crops.
If you aren’t sure which word to choose, it’s perhaps best to stick to the seemingly-neutral noun ‘homeland’ – although the connotations of this might open a whole new can of worms…