Motherland or Fatherland?

By Maeve Maddox

Carol Bakker has a question:

is there a “rule” for using motherland and fatherland?  Do northern countries tend to use fatherland more?

The Wikipedia article on fatherland lists close to 50 languages/countries that employ a term that’s the equivalent of “fatherland.” Location, north or south, doesn’t seem to have much to do with it.

It’s not surprising that fatherland would be the term for one’s native country in any language that has any historical association with the Romans; the Latin word for “fatherland” is patria.

In the OED the expression Mother country has an earlier documentation date than fatherland, but fatherland precedes motherland:

1587 Mother country: a country in relation to its colonies.

1595 Mother country: one’s native land

1623 fatherland: country of one’s birth

1711 motherland: a country as producer of anything; one’s native country

In the 1930s the expression “the Fatherland” was widely used to refer to Germany. For many English speakers the association remains. When the United States adopted the term “Homeland Security” after the attack on the World Trade Center, the expression bothered me no end. “Homeland” made me think “fatherland” and that made me think of Nazis. “Homeland security” no longer raises hackles, but the word fatherland still holds negative connotations for me.

A country closely associated with the word motherland is Russia. In fairy tales, and in Russian literature before 1917, one often encounters the expression “Mother Russia.” After the Revolution, the Soviets preferred the expression Rossiya-Matushka, which I’m told translates as “Mother Motherland.”

WARNING: Read the readers’ comments before repeating any of the remarks about Russia. Actual Russian speakers disagree. –Maeve

As to a “rule” for the use of fatherland vs motherland, I think the choice would depend upon the connotation sought by the author in a particular context. Fatherland suggests government and order. Motherland connotes birth and nurturing.

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20 Responses to “Motherland or Fatherland?”

  • Cipriana

    The problem you are having with Motherland and Fatherland is no mystery to people who speak languages with feminine and masculine nouns. Also, I think it is directly related to Patriarchies and Matriarchies. Brazil, for example, is a matriarchy and would never be considered Fatherland by it´s natives. The same goes for Russia, Italy, Mexico, etc. Germany is evidently a patriarchy, so fatherland is more adequate. It´s all a question of the society in question and how they see their own country.

  • Deborah

    What a good question from Carol Bakker.

    The term “Homeland Security” still annoys me, but when I substitute other words—American, National, Federal, State (state security—that sounds horrible!)—then Homeland Security sounds acceptable.

  • Sergey Panasenko

    Maeve Maddox’s excursion into Russian was a bit confusing, to say the least. There are different Russian words to describe the personal relation to the country. The word “Rodina” is better translated as a Motherland because of its connotations to the word ”rodit”, i.e. “give birth to”. On the other hand, we have the word “Otchizna” which means the same as “Rodina” but is better translated as Fatherland since “Otche” means “father”. So the choice is yours and depends mostly on the context. And, of course, neither 1917 revolution nor Soviets has nothing to do with that, and there’s no such strange thing as “Mother Motherland” (what’s that, anyway?) because “Matushka” is just dated “mummy”, “dear mom”, that’s all.

  • Maeve Maddox

    To Sergey and all the other readers whose comments have not yet cleared moderation:

    My apologies for treading where I have no knowledge! I’d hoped that by saying “which I’m told translates as ‘Mother Motherland.’” might save me from censure.

    I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I got that bit of Russian lore from Wikipedia. I rarely use any of their information without verifying it somewhere else, but I did it this time and sure enough, it comes back to bite me.

    Next time I have occasion to throw in a comment about Russian, I’ll run it by one of the more knowledgeable readers who have commented.

    Thanks for holding my feet to the fire.

  • Israel “izzy” Cohen

    Anthropomorphic maps were generated by configuring the body of a god or goddess over the area to be mapped. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under that part. This produced a scale 1:1 map-without-paper on which each place name automatically indicated its approximate location and direction with respect to every other place on the same map whose name was produced in this way.

    I learned about anthropomorphic maps from the linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford (deceased) and the anthropologist Stan Knowlton. They described the maps of Napi, the creator of the Blackfoot Indians (aka The Old Man) and his wife (The Old Woman) in Alberta, Canada. You can see a sketch of Napi and his wife at http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/BPMaps/

    I “found” similar Phoenician maps of a male body (Hermes ?) in west Asia and a female body (Aphrodite) in north Africa.

    It seems that areas of male body-part maps were later called fatherlands and areas of female maps were called motherlands.
    Europe had been the male body-part map of Poseidon/Neptune. For more about this topic, see my comment #1 at
    http://podictionary.com/?p=98

    By analogy, America would be a fatherland since its name is derived from Mercury, a reversal of kHermes (het-resh-mem). Attribution to Amerigo Vespucci seems to have been a fig-leaf to avoid persecution by the Church which, at that time, was fiercely opposed to honoring other gods.

    North America was called Turtle Island by the Amerindians because of its shape. Its head was at Baffin Bay, its legs were Nova Scotia, Florida, Baja California & Alaska, and its tail was Mexico. This may explain why the ancient world was thought to be supported by a giant turtle. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

  • Vera Surkova

    I totally agree with Sergey Panasenko. The term “Mother Motherland” which you picked up on Wikipedia is just a rough translation of “Rodina-Mat'” (“Родина-Мать”) and actually I have no idea of the correct translation for that.
    I can add that the first association with “Rodina-Mat'” that I’m coming up with is a poster “Rodina-Mat’ zovyot” (“Родина-Мать зовет“). The poster refers to the times of the World War II and it was supposed to call up soviet men for military service. Unfortunately, Wikipedia gives us the whole story about this poster only in Russian.

  • Philip Dragonetti

    The articel said that
    “Rossiya-Matushka, which I’m told translates as “Mother Motherland.”

    Wouldn’t the translation by “Russia-motherland” ???

  • Aram Frangulyan

    Rossiya-Matushka translates as Mother Russia, except mother is written in an endearing dated form. That is what Sergey mentioned in his above post.

  • Howard Daniel

    Going back to the original question — motherland or fatherland — it’s worth noting that in Russia, World War II is generally called Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voyna, the Great Patriotic (Fatherland) War, from the word otechestvo, fatherland (otets = father). The word rodina, which in previous comments has been translated as motherland, might also (and more literally) be rendered as “native land,” since rodina derives from the word roditsya (to be born).

  • Nancy Miller

    For some Freudian reason I’m sure, Motherland sounds as if it refers to the natural features of a country, while Fatherland seems to reference the manmade developments of government, boundaries, etc.

  • Rahul Patil

    word fatherland is alien to me..Iam from india and we call our country ‘bharat mata’ which means ‘mother india; in hindi..i heard some say fatherland and i was confused,why fatherland?lol

  • Sally

    Sorry, folks, the name “Department of Homeland Security” sounds like it was *invented* by Göbbels!

  • Ed

    Russia is referred to as the Fatherland in Tolstoy and the Soviet anthem.

  • John

    I’m sorry, but the Russian reference to the Motherland is pronounced

    Rodina Mat = Literally meaning mother motherland.

    Also in the Soviet National Anthem, the chorus says:

    Sing to the motherland, home of the free……(among other things)

  • Jaime

    France certainly has strong latin roots, and a history of Roman occupation, but my French (journalist) wife tells me that her country is referred to as “la mere patrie”…. i.e. the mother homeland. Thanks for the discourse.

  • Mike Steele

    Searching for a term, something on the order of “Ruskia Zhemblia” I learned in Russian History 40 years ago, I stumbled on to this discourse. Very interesting.

    Anyone ever hear of “Ruskia Zhemblia”? Supposedly it is an expression that connotes both “Mother Russia” and “My country, right or wrong, my country”. Can anyone help?

    Thanks, Mike

  • Anthony

    Mike, “Ruskia Zhemblia” (properly spelled would be Russkaya Zemlya) simply quite literally translates to Russian Land, nothing more. It does not imply Motherland or “My country, right or wrong, my country” (what? lol).

    Contrary to what Cold War propaganda would lead you to believe, Russian does not have a word for Motherland; the word that is officially used is Otechestvo, which translates to Fatherland (Otec=Father), but literally it would be something along the lines of “Fathery.” World War II is referred to in Russian as the Great War for the Fatherland. In fact the word Otechestvo (as Fatherland, and not Motherland) is used in the original 1944 Soviet Hymn; the English version was simply purely translated to give it that “Russianness.”

    Russian terms that would be close to Motherland are Rodina Mat and Rossiya Matushka. Rodina is literally a place where you were born. Rodina Mat is “my mother, the place where I was born.” Rossiya Matushka is what can be roughly translated to Motherland, but even it literally translates to Dear Mother Russia.

  • Eliza

    In Poland the equivalent form to “fatherland” is “ojczyzna” that may be transcribed as /ɔjtʃɪ+znɑ/ The word derives from words ojciec /ɔjc̆jɛc/ meaning “father”. When I find out the term “motherland” instead of “fatherland” I was a bit curious why it is so. Thanks to Your comments and wikipedia notes I see the point now.

  • Kathleen

    Sorry but, as the writer you don’t have a choice. You need to use the word by which the people of a particular country refer to their birthplace; i.e., you can’t decide to use Motherland when referring to Germany any more than you would use Fatherland when referring to America. The “effect” you’re looking for needs to be accuracy.

  • Atulkrishna Biswas

    In India, motherland has been used to refer to the land of birth of native Indians particularly since nineteenth century. But there seems a problem: The practice of ‘sati’, or widow burning with the dead body of a woman’s husband militates against the concept of motherland. A countrty where a dominant but microscopic section of the people who pursued the gory practice and consigned their women, the weakest link in the family to burn her up so violently sensitive mind becomes puzzled about adorationby the same people, addressing the country or land of birth as motherland. In other words, the killers of mother mouthing the term motherland seems an incomprehensible paradox. Those responsible for matricide going euphoric about their land of birth as motherland!

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