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Tales of the Anthems | Thulitha Abayawardana | Auckland

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Whether it’s barbeques or military parades, both New Zealand and Sri Lanka celebrated their national days this February. Of course, chanting the national anthem is integral to any official National Day celebration.

As we all know New Zealand’s national anthem is bilingual, sung in both Maori and English. The Sri Lankan national anthem however sparked quite some stir a few years ago regarding its multilingual status. Nonetheless, New Zealand’s is not the only multilingual anthem and Sri Lanka’s is not the only anthem that created controversies. From changing and sharing melodies to adding and removing lyrics, the tales behind the world’s national anthems are many.

One song, many languages

Apart from New Zealand, the anthems of South Africa, Finland, and Switzerland also have multilingual status. Finland’s anthem is sung in both Finnish and Swedish. The original German anthem of Switzerland has French, Italian, and Romansh translations. Among these, South Africa holds the record with five languages, which are Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.

Interestingly, the South African hymn is a combination of the Afrikaans anthem used during the Apartheid and an addition of a different melody. The anthem starts with Xhosa, Zulu, and Sesotho and then gradually moves to the former anthem in Afrikaans and English. Instead of different translations, they use all five languages together.

Speaking of languages, India’s national anthem is not even sung in the majority spoken language. It’s sung in Bengali, instead of Hindi.

Anthem Upgrades

As Sri Lankans, we are aware of the tragic suicide of Ananda Samarakoon, the lyricist. He supposedly took his life after the controversial change of ‘Namo namo matha’ to ‘Sri Lanka matha’. However, changing or even the entire removal of lyrics has been quite numerous in the history of national anthems.

For instance, the United Kingdom must change the title and its lyrics based on the gender of the monarch. As recently we’ve seen, ‘God save the queen’ was changed to ‘God save the king’ after the coronation of Charles III.

This may not be the only occasion the British anthem needs changes. A controversy in the full long version of the anthem is the line that says, ‘Rebellious Scots to crush’. This was based on the Jacobite uprising, which was a Scottish rebellion that occurred in 1745. Due to its debatable nature, this part is usually not sung. Although the ‘God save the King’ represents the whole United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales sing their hymns when they represent the countries separately at occasions such as sports events.

Germany is another country that had turmoil over the lyrics. After World War II the West Germans removed the first two verses, mainly because they were used as a slogan for the Nazis to signal German supremacy over the world. Although East Germany had an entirely different anthem, they started using the West German one after the unification.

Just as for Germany, the regime changes affected the national anthems in other countries like Russia. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the Soviet anthem was removed, and they adopted a tune that didn’t have lyrics. There were attempts to add lyrics, which didn’t go well. But then as soon as Putin got elected, he reinstated the former Soviet melody with different lyrics, focusing more on Russian patriotism than the Soviet Union and Communism.

You should have noticed that Spanish athletes don’t chant any words when their anthem is played. That’s because Spain’s anthem doesn’t have any. Yet, during Franco’s dictatorship, it had some unofficial lyrics, but the current state doesn’t want to associate the national hymn with that regime. So, for now, their anthem would remain without lyrics.

To sing or not to sing

Then, certain anthems are not allowed to be played at international events. One such example is Taiwan. Due to their feud with China, Taiwan has to change its name to Chinese Taipei, use a different flag, and sing a different anthem at events such as the Olympics.

The Irish on the other hand have no such restrictions, but when it comes to rugby, they take a different turn. Since the Irish rugby team consists of players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic; and since the Northerners may disagree with what’s on the Republic’s anthem, they use a different hymn.

One melody, many nations

Despite all these controversies, some countries do share the melodies of their national anthems. The starting part of South Africa’s anthem shares the same melody with Tanzania and Zambia. Finland’s and Estonia’s share the same tune as well. Before the end of World War I, Germany’s anthem mirrored ‘God save the king’. Then the former Yugoslavia’s melody was the same as Poland’s.

Nonetheless, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every nation in the world today wholeheartedly sings their national anthems with pride when their flags are held up high.


By Thulitha Abayawardana – Auckland

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