The terms motherland and fatherland both refer to one’s native country, one’s country of origin, or the home of one’s ancestors. Whether a particular group uses motherland or fatherland tends to be a matter of custom. It’s unusual for a group to use both. Noah Webster’s The American Dictionary of the English Language, from 1847, referred to motherland as “the home of one’s mother’s ancestors” and fatherland as “the home of one’s father’s ancestors.” These days, though, we tend not to strictly adhere to those definitions.
The people of some countries have historically personified their country as feminine. To them, their home country is the motherland. For example, the personification of Russia is Mother Russia. During the movement for Indian independence of the late 1800s, the concept of Bharat Mata (or Mother India) emerged.
It’s not really clear which culture was the first to refer to their home as the motherland. Ancient cultures often personified land as female. Some mythologies describe a Mother Earth who gave birth to the plants and animals of the planet. The English word first appeared around 1705.
Some cultures personify their lands as masculine. The German national anthem has a line that translates as “Unity and justice and freedom for the German fatherland!” The Netherlands, as well as the Scandinavian countries, use similar terms. People of the Slavic and Baltic nations also tend to refer to their homeland as the fatherland.
In some languages, the Latin words pater, for father, and patria, for fatherland, have resulted in words that relate to these concepts. A patriot is someone who loves their country (in Latin, it’s a fellow countryman). In modern English, a patrician is an aristocrat. In ancient times, a patrician was a member of one of the 100 founding families of Rome who had a special seat in the Senate.
Emergence of Homeland and Other Trends
Not many people in the United States refer to this country or the countries of their ancestors as the motherland or fatherland. In addition, the neutral homeland is a relatively new term that’s not used very much. It’s rare for Americans to refer to the United States as the homeland. It’s also rare to hear immigrants speak of their motherland or fatherland. Many refer to the places they came from as the old country.
Americans tend to describe themselves in terms of ancestral origin. For example, someone from Ireland might self-identify as Irish. Likewise, someone who was born in the United States to Irish ancestors might also identify as Irish. It’s customary to add a hyphen and American when referring to the ethnic identity of someone born in the United States, as in Irish-American or Italian-American. Just know that it’s up to each individual person to decide whether to refer to themselves in this way. Most American-born people prefer to just call themselves American, without calling out their heritage. Because it’s such a personal topic, it’s best to wait until they bring it up themselves, rather than asking if you aren’t sure.