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Does Every Language Need a Word for Heimat?

The German word Heimat is often said to be untranslatable. Roughly meaning “home”, Heimat is booming (again) in German popular culture. The Inter- Nations Magazine explores this trend and the long history of the word it’s based on — including its potential relevance for expats.

Heimat is in. Here in Munich, there’s a specialist store for Heimatliebe und Herzlichkeit (“love of one’s home and cordial warmth”). What the shop actually sells: local travel guides, “ironic” antlers and cuckoo clocks, and Bavarian recipe books — including the latest edition of one from 1931, which my mum also received as a wedding present back in 1965.

While this is Heimat with a Bavarian flavor, regional traditions — or kitsch — are thriving everywhere. You can read Heimatkrimis (crime novels) set on the North Sea coast, browse Heimatblogs about the Pott (the Ruhr Area) or a Berlin Kiez (neighborhood), or flick through glossy magazines dedicated to country life.

In present-day Germany, however, 75% of the population live in towns or major cities rather than the countryside. The same generation that’s the target audience for hipster shirts with a pretzel print takes having international experience for granted. For example, since the ERASMUS exchange program was introduced 30 years ago, over 1.3 million German students spent at least a semester abroad.

Heimat and Home: Old Words for Essential Needs

The German word Heimat sometimes pops up in vocabulary lists making the rounds on the internet: words that should exist in English or that are impossible to translate. While translation isn’t impossible, it is hard to find one with all the same implied meanings.

Heimat contains the German noun Heim, which — as you may have guessed — is very closely related to the English “home”. Both are some of the oldest words in these languages, going all the way back to early medieval Old High German and Old English.

If you want to get really technical, the words are even older. Both English and German are Indo-European languages. Whether we say Heimat, Heim, or “home”, they all have their origin in the ancient South Asian language Sanskrit from a verb that means “to stay”, “to live somewhere”, “to dwell”.

Those 3,000 years of linguistic history highlight some of the oldest and most important human needs: to have a place to stay, gather round the fire, share your food, and feel safe.

Is Heimat a Bad, Bad Word?

Heimat has all the positive connotations of feeling at home, where it’s cozy and safe, but it hasn’t always been an uncontroversial word.

At best, Heimat is something slightly old-fashioned, full of naïve sentimentalism, a simplistic idyll far from reality. In 1950s Germany, antlers were a very popular and completely unironic kind of home decoration, and the era’s most successful movies were called Heimatfilme (“homeland films”). These feel-good flicks full of technicolor scenery and black-and-white morality were still broadcast on TV decades later.

At worst, Heimat can be even more dire than suffering through yet another rerun of Grün ist die Heide (“How Green is the Heath”) with your aged relatives. It can be provincial, narrow-mined, or exclusionary. It may also imply protecting your home from something scary — or just from someone else: those who are not “from here”; those who have the “wrong” dialect or customs or religion or skin color; those whose family hasn’t lived here for hundreds of years.

Home Is Not (Always) a Place

What if you can’t trace your local family tree back a dozen generations? If you identify with more than one city, region, or country? Or if you move frequently as an adult, as many expats do? What is your Heimat? Is it your birthplace? Your parents’? The place where you’ve lived the longest?

There is another meaning of Heimat that hasn’t been explored yet. From its earliest usage in the German language, the word has always told a story of loss or longing. There’s no place like home — but home isn’t necessarily a place.

In more religious times, the “friedesamu heimote” (“peaceful home”) was only found in heaven. Centuries later, philosophy turned the concept of humanity’s true home into a more secular thought: maybe humankind was doomed to be heimatlos (“homeless”) in an existential sense, always longing to belong somewhere but never arriving anywhere.

Fortunately, you don’t need to start reading Heidegger & Co to get a feeling for that sense of Heimat. It’s right there in the word Heimweh, which translates as “longing for home” or “nostalgia”, the ache of coming home. It’s a very familiar feeling, that search for familiarity, safety, and love.

Making It Home

Today, the world seems smaller than ever. We have more opportunities to explore other cultures, more connections with people from other countries, more freedom to find our place in life — anywhere we want. Expanding our horizons can be both exhilarating and unsettling, and everyone reacts to it differently.

Some people prefer to go back to their roots: they might move back to the small town they once wanted to escape from, only venturing out for their annual vacation. Other people just buy countryside magazines or “ironic” cuckoo clocks, which secretly remind them of happy childhood moments spent in their granny’s living room. 

And yet others find a home in the feeling of Heimat itself. The German Duden dictionary also defines Heimat as an “emotional expression that suggests a strong attachment to a specific place”. If we talk about someone’s “spiritual” home, “second” home, or “new” home, it doesn’t matter if you were born in that place or how long you’ve lived there. It only matters that you feel a sense of belonging, that you have finally arrived. Home is where the heart is, and all that.

Yes, there’s a very handy German term for that too: Wahlheimat — the home you choose. Now that’s a word that should definitely exist in every language!

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