Why are Countries Referred to as Her: We constantly hear people and even ourselves use feminine pronouns when talking about certain places like countries, schools and the likes. The national pledge in Nigeria reads in part: ‘…to serve Nigeria with all my strength/ to defend her unity/ and uphold her honour and glory….’ In the same manner, Americans sing, ‘Stand beside her, and guide her,’ in ‘God Bless America.’ This reference to countries as a woman is not restricted to these two countries. Many countries of the world are referred to as her.
In this post, we shall find out the reason for the choice of the feminine pronoun over the masculine or neutral pronouns in talking about some countries.
Unlike many languages of the world, the English language does not differentiate nouns based on gender. That is, we do not have male and female nouns in English language. All nouns are just that— nouns. However, in some other languages such as French, there are gender distinctions between nouns. For instance, a cat is referred to as, ‘la chat.’ This shows that it is a feminine noun. A dog, on the other hand, is translated to as, ‘le chien,’ showing that it is a masculine noun. The noun dog is written as masculine in french whether the dog is actually male or female.
History of the Gender Attribution to Countries
One can trace the history of the distinction between countries based on gender in English language to Latin. Apart from French, Latin is one of the languages that greatly influenced English language. This language, just like French, has masculine and feminine nouns. For instance, the words ‘terra firma,’ which means Earth or strong ground is feminine. Thus, because of this feminine reference in Latin and because the earth is actually seen as a rich source of food and nuture for our forebears, we refer to our planet as Mother Earth rather than father or a neutral pronoun.
It is believed that it was from this that all land came to be referred to as her. You must have heard people speak of their ‘Motherland’ or ‘her sovereignty,’ when referring to their countries.
This is, however, not so in every country. In Germany, for instance, the country was referred to as ‘Vaterland’ at the time of the second world war. This word, is a gender- neutral pronoun but in English, it means ‘Fatherland.’ This word is now out of use.
Why Are Most Countries Referred to as Her or She?
There has been a lot of explanations for the age long act of referring to countries as female. Many people believe that this habit of referring to countries as her or she is because the country is seen as a mother from whom all the citizens were born.
Also, female pronouns are used for countries in times of war. This is based on the fact that most people are always on the lookout to protect the dignity and pride of their country. Thus, they see their country as a woman whose dignity and pride must be safeguarded. This reason has been criticized as being sexist as women are shown by it to be weak and always in need of protection unlike their male counterparts.
Another angle to this is that countries, just like ships, are seen as a protective mother who wraps up her children in her strong arms and keeps them safe from danger. She is believed to care and provide emotional support as well as nutrition for them. These are things a father may not be readily available to cater for. The idea of a fatherland is one that fights or provides military defense. It does not paint the picture of a parent that tends to the emotional or nutritional needs of their children like a motherland would.
Usually, the discrepancy based on gender in English language is often between living or animate nouns and non living things. Under the category of living things, we have the male and female sub division, though sometimes, the use of plural pronouns such as ‘they’ is used to cater for instances where one may want to refer to gender binary nouns.
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Grown up people are grouped in the animate category and thus take either he or her as the case may be. Children, especially new borns, were formerly referred to as ‘it’ but recently, there has been a change from that style. Animals, are usually categorised as inanimate, thus they take the the pronoun ‘it,’ but this is at the discretion of the writer, the context of the discussion and their style of writing.
Leaders and politicians are wont to refer to their countries as a homeland. Some others prefer to use the term, ‘motherland’ as a reference to the respect that one has for their mother.
As it is in most cases, leaders and indeed politicians are known to use words to manipulate the populace, turn tables to their own favour and present themselves as blameless. For instance, Stalin, who is infamous for gruesome misuse of political power was reported to fault his detractors with committing offences against the Motherland.
Instead of accusing them of working against him, which will appear as though it is a personal quarrel which he should settle with them, he made it look like those people were enemies of the country, thus, getting the backing of the masses to prosecute those people, legitimizing his bad leadership actions.
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Linguists have been at work to unravel the underlying meanings to these expressions that give animate qualities to geographical entities. Expressions such as ‘Founding fathers,’ ‘Mama Africa,’ are believed to have rich historical originations.
Inanimate objects such as geographical entities, are usually not referred to in terms of male or female in the English language. The usual pronoun such nouns or places receive is the inanimate pronoun, ‘it,’ thus, it is a great surprise to many learners of English language that there is an exception for countries.
Compare this to other European languages, some of which have relations with the English language, most of them have gender pronouns for nouns and there are no logical reasons for this assignment of different genders to things like tables and chairs, hence learners will have to just mindlessly memorize the gender of each noun.
Some people have pointed to the value that citizens of a country have for their women folk as the reason for the reference to countries as her or she. For instance, women are highly valued and loved in Russia. They are seen as people that must be protected and cherished with all that one has. Therefore, you will find Russians refer to their beloved country as ‘Mother Russia,’ and are willing to give their all to protect her.
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The use of female pronouns for countries has met a lot of criticisms from some quarters due to the sexist tone to it. Most people frown at the idea of their country being a fine lady in distress and always in need of protection.
As much as some people may want to argue that these are mere words that do not have any much meaning to them, it is becoming more obvious that to preserve the diversity of nations and promote the idea of a society that upholds equality for all genders, even the words we use are of great essence.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka, ACMC, is a lawyer and a certified mediator/conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a developer with knowledge in various programming languages. Samuel is determined to leverage his skills in technology, SEO, and legal practice to revolutionize the legal profession worldwide by creating web and mobile applications that simplify legal research. Sam is also passionate about educating and providing valuable information to people.