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Homeland and Fatherland

September 24, 2013

Let me tell you about a language faux pas I once made.  I was at a conference in Singapore, and speaking in Mandarin with some researchers from mainland China.  Our conversation drifted to the topic of the Mandarin dialect itself.  Because I learned Mandarin primarily from teachers and materials from Taiwan, I used the term 國語 (guoyu, literally “national language”) instead of 普通話 (putonghua, literally “common speech”).  A Mandarin-speaking Singaporean listening to our discussion kicked me and harshly whispered in my ear “other side, other side!”

As I understand it, not only was the term 國語 uncommon to the mainlanders, but it actually carried harshly negative overtones, much like the term “fatherland” once did to English speakers.  “Fatherland” sounds distinctly like the German vaterland – as in the now infamous German national anthem:

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt, …

Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang….

…Blüh’ im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland

My understanding is that in the postwar Federal Republic, only the last stanza is sung, so that German citizens no longer declare that “Germany, Germany is over all else – over all else in the world” or express their devotion to “German women, German loyalty, German wine and German song.”  Nonetheless, they do pray for the German fatherland to flourish.

While the phrase “fatherland” is completely comprehensible to native English listeners, it chills many listeners because of its Nazi overtones.  (Note, for example, that native English listeners do not have nearly the same degree of negative reaction to the word “motherland” [in Russian Родина-мать.])  My understanding that is that 國語 is similarly jarring to mainland Mandarin listeners. 

But, I am no longer certain that I can use “fatherland” as an example.  The truth is that the word “fatherland” no longer affects me the way it once did.  I have become gradually acclimated to it – not through repeated use of the phrase “fatherland,” but through repetitions of the word “homeland” and the phrase “homeland security.”  The fact that so many people can utter these “homeland” phrases with absolutely no trace of irony at all has somehow taken the edge off the term “fatherland.”

At the same time, the phrase “Homeland Security” still makes me strikes as a bit ominous (in a way, for example, that “Department of the Interior” does not.)  In fact, I have to wonder whether that ominous effect was a deliberate choice.  Perhaps the architects of the “Department of Homeland Security” (DHS), created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, desired to project a level of severity.  It certainly seems that agencies belonging to DHS have sometimes chosen threatening names.  Perhaps the most evident example is the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (which was created by the same legislation that created DHS), which prefers to be known by the acronym ICE – apparently a calculated “chilly” effect.

In any case, the term “fatherland” no longer upsets me the way it once did.  Are Americans, who live under the jurisdiction and watchful eye of Homeland Security, really in a position to disapprove of those who profess devotion to the Fatherland?

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 25, 2013 8:37 am

    Thanks so much for this post! It’s so very easy to overlook the nuances of language and the effects on people given our diverse histories. Fatherland still chills many of us, although I think you’re right that we post-9/11 Americans do have our government to thank for how we see our nation state, and how others see it.

    The past couple of days, I’ve spent a little time with Rob Schmitz. As an American in China, he says he often gets asked the question whether he owns a gun and if he’s been in a gunfight. Schmitz, to a crowd at my campus last evening, explained the problems of grave misperceptions, caused by accounts such as Mike Daisey’s horrendous falsehoods in his story on Apple’s supply chain in China. Schmitz was able to interview Daisey’s Chinese translator, and then Daisey himself, and this report led to the “Retraction” story on “This American Life.”

    Not so unrelated is the unfortunate incident this week with Rick Warren’s facebook post.

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