Thursday, May 12, 2016

America and América are false cognates

Living in Chile has brought about some additional awarenesses of false cognates between English and Spanish, and one that I have encountered a number of times is that between "America" and "América."

In Spanish, "América" refers primarily to the single continent in the Western Hemisphere that stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic. This means that in Spanish, there are five populated continents (Europa, Asia, África, Oceanía, and América). In Spanish, América del Norte (Norteamérica), América Central (Centroamerica), and América del Sur (Sudamérica) are considered to be "subcontinents."

In English, this same configuration of land is made up of two continents - North America and South America - which are collectively known as "the Americas." This means that in English, there are six populated continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North America and South America), with Central America being a subcontinental region.

Therefore, when a Spanish speaking person talks of "América," they are referring to the entirety of the single continent of the Western Hemisphere, which English speakers would refer to collectively as "the Americas," because the term "America" in English means something specific: the nation of the United States of America. This is something that a lot of Spanish-speaking people just don't want to accept, seeking to impose one cultural-linguistic understanding for another, but would rather suggest in considering "America" and "América" to be false cognates, much like "embarrass" (tener verguenza) and "embarazar" (to be pregnant) both stem from the same Portuguese root (baraçar), but now mean very different things (and my Spanish-speaking friends have little problem accepting the fact that the word that means "to be pregnant" in their language doesn't mean that at all in English).

The perceived problem among Spanish-speakers is that "America" is somehow (perhaps imperialistically or at least imperiously) laying dominion over the spatial extent that they understand to be "América." However, I would argue that this - the history of US imperialism aside - this perspective hasn't internalized the contrasting logics of how each language refers to the same land mass and the various peoples living within it. Nor does it adequately consider the history of how the term "American" came into use within English. Let's start with the history first.

240 Years of (non-Indigenous) Nations in North America

In 1774, when the video begins, the Spanish (indicated by the Cross of Burgundy until 1785) are in Mexico, and much of the modern-day central and western United States. Britain (indicated by the Union Jack) is all along the eastern coast of North America (except for Florida) and much of Canada. In 1776, the United States of America declares its independence, and - if you stop the video there - you will note that nowhere else in the entire continent is there any flag that is not a European national flag. From 1776 until 1804 (i.e., 28 years), all non-indigenous governments in the Americas were European colonial governments except for that of the United States of America, until Haiti declares independence. Since it's inception as a nation, the United States of America identifed itself as being separate from Europe, not just politically, but also geographically. This mindset admittedly later became the basis of the concept of "Manifest Destiny" (and all the religiously justified racism and genocide that came from it), but the birth of the United States of America not only created a new nation, it also created a new people, who labeled themselves - and were labeled by others - "Americans." As a comparison, one can look at a comparative n-gram of "American" against "British" - which only really came into use after the Acts of Union in 1707 - and is thus only a couple generations older than the concept of "American." What's clear is that the term "American" made a jump that vaulted it to the same relative level of commonality as the term "British" at the same period, and they followed their own trajectories subsequently (although tracking against each other during WW1 and WW2). It should be clear, therefore, that the concept of "American" predates the independence of any other European colony.

Conversely, when we look at a Spanish n-gram between "América" and "América del Norte" and "América del Sur" (and their respective cognates), the term "América" remains far and away the most common use. Indeed, it isn't until the mid-1800s that either "América del Norte" or "América del Sur" even reach a sufficient quantity to be seen in comparison. Furthermore, it is clear from a comparison of English vs. Spanish that the concepts of separate North and South Americas were more established earlier on in English - before the US War of Independence. It also makes a kind of sense that - in Spanish - the concept of a separate North and South America did not fit into the mindset of an empire that stretched across a contiguous landform, and only started to be used after the various wars of independence from Spain.

So the usage of the term "American" to refer - in English - to a citizen of the United States of America stems from a history in which the only (non-indigenous) sovereign power in the Americas was the United States of America, whose people were born free of any political ties with Europe, and were thus the only (non-indigenous) people in the Americas that were considered to be "of America" and not subject to any other nation or empire.

Relating Culture and Linguistics
The idea of "America" in English - as outlined above - is associated with the United States of America and the term "Americans" in English is associated with citizens of the United States of America. Furthermore, the idea of a continental "America" is not a common concept in English, with the divisions of "North America" and "South America" predating the US War of Indpendence. Therefore, insisting upon the logic that "America" actually means the entirety of North and South America, when that historically wasn't at all a common notion in English is like suddenly insisting upon the logic that "embarrass" actually means "to be pregnant," when the common understanding of the common Portuguese root word was not a common notion in English (and perhaps in Spanish) for a couple hundred years.

But let's look at what Spanish speakers present as alternatives to "America" referring implicitly to "the United States of America" and "American" referring to "a citizen of the United States of America": estadounidense and norteamericano.

estadounidense. This directly translates as "United Stateser," which could serve as a description of what a person from the United States of America is, and even though it sounds *bleaugh* to me, I recognize that this dissonance is merely based on personal preference, and continued repitition of the phrase may well make it palatable over time. However, there is a problem beyond that of personal aesthetics: the United States of America isn't the only country that uses "United States" in its name. Setting aside the 11 historical nations that used "United States" (at least in their English translations) in their name, the modern world has Mexico, whose official name is "los Estados Unidos Mexicanos." If people from los Estados Unidos de América should be called estadounidenses after the "Estados Unidos" part, why is this logic not extended to citizens of los Estados Unidos Mexicanos? The response could well be that they are from México, but if the argument that "America" does not match the geographic boundaries of the landmass with the same name (even discounting the fact that there is no continental "America" in the English-speaking world), then neither does modern-day Mexico match the geographic boundaries of the landmass from which it draws its name: Mēxihco, also known as the Valley of Mexico, which makes up only roughly half of the Federal District (where Mexico City is found). According to the logic of "America means all of the continent of America" (which - again - let's skip past the part where there doesn't exist a single continent of America in English), "Mexico means only the Valley of Mexico." Yeeeah... no; if you want to make the argument, it needs to be applied consistently, and in the case of Mexico (the other Estados Unidos in today's world), the naming is not applied consistently.

norteamericano. This directly translates as "North American," and it is even more problematic than estadounidense in describing specifically people from the United States of America, because in the English-speaking world, the concepts of "North America" and "North American" are concepts that are inclusive of the United States of America, and not (generally) used to mean only the United States of America. Even in the Spanish-speaking world's conceptuaizatio of América del Norte (aka Norteamérica), the area includes two nations that are not the United States of America, namely Canada and Mexico, which makes me wonder what sort of inherent biases are at play when someone suggests norteamericano to be an adequate alternative to the English term "American."

americano. This term directly translates into "American," exists in Spanish, and is defined by the Real Academia Española (RAE) as:
  1. Natural de América (Natually of the continent of America)
  2. Pertenece o relative a América o a los americanos (Pertaining or related to the coninent of America or things that are American).
  3. indiano (Spaniards who return rich from the continent of America)
  4. estadounidense (citizens of the United States of America)
  5. café americano (coffee made by adding hot water to espresso)
  6. chaqueta de tela, con solapas y botones, que llega por debajo de la cadera (a sports coat)
Let's run through the definitions one by one. We discussed already why definition 1 doesn't fit into the logic of the English "the Americas" description of what the Spanish see as a single "América." For this reason, definition 2 is similarly unusable. Definition 3 is (apparently) historical, and therefore not applicable in today's world, but still I have to ask, WTF? Why does Spanish have a specific term for a Spaniard that goes back to Spain after making it rich in the Americas, whose root word is the same one as the word describing the indigenous people of the Americas? There could be a simple, innocent, non-racist reason for the existence for this word, but without further digging, the implications seem really messed up. Definition 4 indicates that the term americano can be a synonym for estadounidense, which - from above - is the Spanish word for citizen of the United States of America. Okidoki...Definitions 5 and 6 refer to describe objects and not people.

Concluding Remarks
The major argument against using "America" and "American" to refer, respectively, to "the United States of America" and "citizens of the United States of America" seem to be based on a cultural-linguistic difference between English and Spanish. To recap:

In English
  • There is no continent "America," but two continents ("North America" and "South America").
  • "American" cannot refer to people from the single continent of "America," since there is no such thing in English.
  • "American" refers, instead, to people from the first (non-indigenous) nation to declare independence from a European empire, making all its citizens of the land of America.
In Spanish
  • There is a single continent América, within which there are two major subcontinents (América del Norte and América del Sur).
  • Americano refers to people from the single continent of América, including all people from Chile to Canada, but it can also refer to a Spaniard who made it rich in the continent of América or it could mean a citizen of los Estados Unidos de América. It's not so exclusive a definition, apparently.
  • People from los Estados Unidos de América are referred to as either estadounidenses (despite the inconsistency of labeling these people against the people of los Estados Unidos Mexicanos) or norteamericanos (despite this definition implicitly including countries and people who are not from los Estados Unidos de América, namely los Estados Unidos Mexicanos and Canadá).
In the end, if the disagreement stems from the implied misappropriation of the term América (which it wasn't), when the term refers to the entire continent (which doesn't conceptually exist in English), then why even accept the name los Estados Unidos de América? After all, the official name of the country could indicate dominance over the continent of América, even as the preposition de can also indicate that the country is mere associated with América.

Conversely, why allow the country of Colombia to have control over the more classical name for the Americas? After all, if one wishes to argue that America=América, which was named after Amerigo Vespucci, and - only by a twist of fate - came to be used to describe the continent(s) of the Western Hemisphere, then why not also argue that Colombia=Columbia, which was named after Christopher Columbus, and used to describe the entirety of the "New World" as far back as 1738? Or is the argument for consistency of scale only important, because América currently refers to the name of the continent, whereas Columbia no longer does? Again, it's a logical (if tangential) inconsistency in the general argument that the English-language conceptualization of "America" need align itself perfectly with the Spanish-language conceptualization of América.

Seems far easier for people to recognize that different languages use words from the same word root in contrasting ways. Sometimes (like between "to embarrass" and embarazar) the contrast is so great as to make the words so obviously different. Sometimes (like between "climate" and clima) there is a great amount of overlap, making implicit distinction present in one language unapparent in the other. But still, if native English speakers can learn that - in Spanish - the two continents of North America and South America are subcontinents in a single continent called América, and that citizens of the United States of America are called - despite the logical inconsistencies inherent in the words - estadounidenses and norteamericanos, and that the term americano can refer to anyone from the Spanish continent of América, a Spaniard who made it rich in the continent of América, or a person from the United States of America (but to avoid confusion and reminders of US imperialism, one should avoid using americano to refer to what nearly every English speaker means when they say, "American," then why shouldn't Spanish-speakers learn the implications of "America" and "American" in English?

In other words, "America" and "América" are false cognates, deriving from the same root, but having evolved into different concepts in English and Spanish.

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