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Word! The Language Column
Overblown one-word concepts

Illustration: TV set showing an eye; there is a speech bubble to the left of the set
Language is never neutral | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In her final column, Olga Grjasnowa zeroes in on two words that hold a special place in the German language: “Heimat” ("home" or “homeland”), an elusive concept that can be hard to get your head around, and “Wurzeln“ ("roots"), which at least seems quite tangible. Both are heavily fraught with political and emotional connotations.

By Olga Grjasnowa

There are two words whose use in German is almost obsessively over-inflated: Heimat and Wurzeln. The German government actually created a separate Heimat ministry in 2018.

What is “Heimat”?

Heimat (“home” or “homeland”) is a very vague, elusive concept because it can’t be precisely located on the map or in time. Does it mean a person’s village or familiar climes, a nation or even a whole continent? Even the terms geistige Heimat (“spiritual home”) and politische Heimat (“political home”) have become common usage. But where does Heimat begin and end? How many miles does a person need to have around them to feel heimisch (“at home”)? Heimat has a temporal component, too, mainly comprising memories preserved over time: events, certain smells, childhood. So Heimat is more of an emotion than a location and always refers a bit more to the past than to the present.
Heimat is one of the few words that the otherwise oh so sober German language tends to imbue with exaggerated importance. And there’s an irrational side to this exaggeration, especially seeing as many people just can’t wait to put their Heimat behind them – and not only because they’re under duress. Some quit the narrow confines of their village to move to the city or, conversely, bid farewell to the hustle and bustle of the city to settle in the countryside; some hit the road or move house; and none of them misses the fabled Heimat or says a single word about it. The very vagueness of the term also makes it all too easy to abuse.

Line of defence

Heimat becomes problematic when used in a political context: although generally defined in broad, vague terms, it suddenly takes on sharp “patriotic” contours when it’s a matter of protecting the Heimat against “gate-crashers”. Heimatschutz, or “homeland security”, is often the lowest and only common denominator for a wide range of political stances: it means protecting the borders rather than, say, the environment. Heimat is often what separates the dominant culture from minorities. And those who invoke Heimat feel released from any obligation to respect rights and civil liberties, access to citizenship, the protection of minorities, or Germany’s constitution: the Grundgesetz or "Basic Law”. Heimat is passed down: you’re basically born to it, you can’t earn it. Heimat is indivisible, and everything about it is supposed to stay just the way it never was.

Legs, not roots

The Wurzeln or “roots” metaphor is equally odd. It’s nothing new, to be sure: even the ancients invoked it. Still, I fail to understand why grown persons would voluntarily compare themselves to plants. Tellingly enough, Jewish writers often inveigh against this root fallacy. Joseph Roth, for instance, pointed out: “Der Mensch ist kein Baum” ("Man is not a tree"). And Isaac Deutscher quipped: “Bäume haben Wurzeln, Juden haben Beine” ("Trees have roots, Jews have legs"). Needless to say, these refutations of the botanical metaphor make perfect sense to me because we human beings do indeed have legs, not roots, and unless hamstrung by restrictions, they serve to move around. We can't photosynthesize or provide shade, but we are, in a manner of speaking, born to walk. A human being can go from one place to another pretty easily, provided there are no insurmountable obstacles in the way. A plant, on the other hand, has to be uprooted and re-potted. People can change, they can roam, travel, study, return and set forth again. The root metaphor suggests a natural connection with the soil, a specific patch of soil, that is, which geographically and ethnically belongs to a particular group of people and, lately, to a cultural tradition – that doesn’t really exist. Because there isn’t just one tradition, there are many traditions. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychiatrist Felix Guattari have developed the concept of the rhizome to illustrate this point.
The Wurzeln metaphor is very graphic, in contrast to Heimat, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Because it’s far from the Wurzeln to Muttererde – from “roots” to “native soil” – and when people start talking about “native soil” it does not bode well. Especially in Germany. Not for nothing was the blood-and-soil ideal a core component of Nazi ideology. Which goes to show: language – especially of a metaphorical cast –is never neutral.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.