Thursday, September 14, 2017

Eng. American and Sp. americano

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 1, "Hispanic, Latino and related terms", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

In a chapter that deals with the naming of people in the United States, we could not fail to include the cognates Eng. American ~ Sp. americano/a, which happen not to be the best of friends, though not exactly false friends either. These words, which are primarily adjectives but also nouns, are derived from the cognate nouns Eng. America ~ Sp. América, which is the name that came to be given to the so-called New World (the American continent) in the 16th century. This continent was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine explorer, financier, navigator, and cartographer.

Vespucci was the one who first showed that Columbus had not stumbled upon the fringes of Asia or the Indies, as it was then called, but rather had come upon a separate landmass, or a ‘new world’, new, that is, for those who came from the (for them) ‘old world’ of Europe. Using the term New World for these lands is probably as much a display of ethnocentrism as saying that Columbus discovered America, which was already quite populated when he arrived. Considering the damage that the Europeans’ arrival did to the indigenous inhabitants of this continent, continuing to call it the ‘New World’ and to say that it was discovered can be seen as adding insult to injury.

Figure 99: Amerigo Vespucci[1]

Amerigo Vespucci worked for the European maritime powers of the time. He participated in several Portuguese expeditions along the coast of South America between 1499 and 1502 and wrote accounts of those trips that became very influential in Europe. Then in 1508, he was made chief of navigation of Spain (Sp. piloto mayor de Indias), in charge of planning voyages to the newly discovered territories, known then as the Indies (Sp. las Indias).

In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map in his Cosmographiae Introductio that became very well known and influential, in which he named the lands of the Western Hemisphere America in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, whose Latinized name was Americus Vespucius. The first name Americus was made feminine to refer to a territory, much like names of countries and lands tend to end in ‑a and be feminine in Latin and the Romance languages. This resulted in the proper noun America for all of these newly discovered lands.

The Italian name Amerigo is Germanic in origin. It derives from the ancient Germanic name Emmerich, which was a compound of which the last part was Old High German rīhhi, which meant ‘power’ or ‘ruler’, from Proto-Germanic *rīkijaz, a derivative of *rīks ‘king, ruler’, a word that was found in many ancient Germanic given names. That root is also the source of the cognates Eng. rich ~ Sp. rico/a and it is a cognate of Lat. rex, the source of Sp. rey ‘king’ (and of tyrannosaurus rex). (Actually, this Germanic word seems to be a borrowing from Proto-Celtic *rīxs, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *h₃rḗǵs ‘ruler’.)

It is not clear what the first part of the compound was originally, however. It could have been ermen ‘all, complete, whole’, which would make this name a cognate of the name Ermenrich. It could also be amal ‘vigor, work, labor’, which would make it a cognate of the name Amalric. Or it could be heim ‘home’, which would make it a cognate of Heimirich, which meant something like ‘home ruler’ and which is the ancestor of Eng. Henry and Sp. Enrique (cf. Lat. Henricus). We find equivalents of this Italian name in other European languages, though none of them is very common. English has Emery, Amery, and Emory; French has Émeric, Portuguese and Spanish have Américo; Hungarian has Imre or Imrus; and Slovak has Imrich.

The name America caught on and it became commonplace in Europe to refer to the new lands as America (Sp. América) or sometimes the Americas (Sp. las Américas), since there were so many different lands discovered and conquered and occupied in this continent, at different times and by different countries. In Spanish, this term competed with the term (las) Indias (Eng. (the) Indies), which was no doubt more common, at least until the 20th century.

When the Spanish referred to America or anything American, they did so typically in the context of the lands controlled by the Spanish Crown and when the English referred to America or anything American, they did so in the context of the lands controlled by the English Crown (the British Crown after 1707), which were in North America. Thus, in the English-speaking world, the name America eventually came to refer primarily to the English colonies, before and after they became independent from Great Britain in 1776, after which time their official name came to be the United States of America. Likewise, inhabitants of this new country came to be known, in English, as Americans, in total disregard of the other sense of the words America and American, which referred to a whole continent and its people and which was never fully lost from the word, though it definitely became secondary.

In the Spanish-speaking world, however, America continued to be used to refer to a whole continent that went from the arctic tundra of Northern Canada to Cape Horn in Chile (Sp. Cabo de Hornos), although perhaps the more common name for the Spanish territories in the Americas, at least until the 20th century, was las Indias as we have seen. The English cognate of this word is Indies, a term which is now archaic. The term Indies was originally 
a name given to India and the adjacent regions and islands, and also to those lands of the Western Hemisphere discovered by Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries, and originally supposed to be part of the former; with the progress of geographical knowledge the two were distinguished as East Indies and West Indies. (OED)
Nowadays, in English, the term Indies is somewhat different:
without qualification [it] means the East Indies; and West Indies is (in strict use) confined to the group of islands lying to the east of Central America; but, in translations from French, Spanish, or Portuguese, Indies often occurs in its 16th century sense. (OED)
Figure 100: North America in 1702 showing areas occupied by European settlements[2]

But going back to America, what we see here is an issue of specialization—some might call it (improper) appropriation—of a term in English that used to be for a continent to refer to a country in that continent. Actually, the country in question is only informally known as America, since United States is the more common name. Both of them are, of course, abbreviations for the official name, (the) United States of America.

What is not at all informal in English is the use of the derived word American, which is both an adjective and a noun, to refer to the people of that country and to anything that derives from that country. (Originally, American was an adjective, as in American food, which later came to be used as a noun, as in two Americans.) In English, American means primarily ‘from the United States’ and there is nothing informal about that use.

The problem with the narrowing of the meaning of the term America (in English) is not just one of utter disregard for all the other people of the hemisphere, though that may be a factor and that could very well be how many see it from the outside. After all, in the British Isles and in many parts of Europe, when someone spoke of America, they were primarily referring to the United States, as a place of emigration or as a source of novelty, for instance, so it is rather inevitable that America would come to stand for that country in many people’s minds and linguistic habits. That is just how language works.

The problem here is also in part linguistic, since it is rather difficult to derive an adjective from the country name The United States of America. When the country name is a single word, such as Italy, it is easy to derive an adjective to refer to things from that country, in this case Italian. We have many suffixes that can do that. But when the name of the country has several words, things are more complicated. It is not impossible, however. English could have created a term like Unitedstatian or United-Statian. The terms may seem odd and even funny, but that is because we are not used to them. Other languages have derived analogous terms to refer to things and people from the United States and those do not seem odd in those languages at all, such as Sp. estadounidense, which translates into English as American, that is ‘from the United States’. Actually, the word United-Statian has been coined before, it just never caught on. By the way, the French and many other languages follow English in this regard and the equivalent of American (Sp. estadounidense) in this language is américain /a.me.ʀi.ˈkɛ̃/, feminine américaine /a.me.ʀi.ˈkɛn/.

Leaders in the US were aware of the problems with the odd name they had chosen for the newborn country, which seemed like the job of a committee that could not find consensus on a better name. Many thought this name was unsatisfactory, in part because it had no proper adjectival form. Other names were even proposed for the country, such as United States of Columbia, Appalachia, and Freedonia or Fredonia, but none of them caught on.

To be fair, the terms America and American were not very commonly used to refer to the United States and its citizens until the late 19th century, in particular after the Civil War, when emphasis was put on the country’s unity. Until then, many Americans tended to identify more with their state rather than with the ‘federation of States’ and the term American was used less often and mostly by outsiders. Thus, the invention of the American nationality came much later than the creation of the country. Also, the choice of the term American for this nationality had a lot to do with the use that had been given to that term and its cognates in Europe (though not so much in Spain) by that time, for the United States was the main reference for people wanting to emigrate to America (the continent), for example. To go to America in most parts of Europe meant going to the United States. And if some invention came from America, chances were it came from the United States.

What do English dictionaries tell us about the meanings and uses of these terms? They all indicate their ambiguity, so that America is said to have two senses, one ‘the United States of America’ and the other ‘the American continent(s)’. Curiously, however, dictionaries differ as to what sense they give priority to. The American Heritage Dictionary gives as the main sense for America, ‘The United States’, and as for the second sense, which we are told is synonymous with the Americas, it is ‘the landmasses and islands of North America, Central America, and South America’. For Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, the sense ‘United States of America’ is the third one, giving priority to (1) ‘either continent (North America or South America) of the western hemisphere’ and (2) ‘the lands of the western hemisphere including North, Central, & South America & the West Indies’ (synonymous with the Americas).

The second sense of the MWC entry brings us to the question of how many Americas or American continents there are, understanding by the word continent either ‘any of the world's main continuous expanses of land’ (COED) or ‘a large mass of land surrounded by sea’ (DOCE). School children in the United States, and in the English-speaking world in general, are taught that there are seven continents, two of which are North America and South America, while separating Europe from Asia as well, despite the obvious contiguity of land in both cases and the lack of a sea separating them (especially the latter). There is another possible division of the Earth’s land masses into five continents, joining Europe with Asia (Eurasia) and North America with South America (America). In the Spanish-speaking world the norm is to consider North and South America to be a single continent. It is not illogical or unfair to suspect that there is a connection between not recognizing the unity of this landmass and the desire to appropriate the term America for part of that continent.[a]

Because the term America is often associated primarily with the United States, a new term is often used to refer to the whole American continent, namely Western Hemisphere. This is used only in certain contexts, mostly academic ones. This term can be translated literally into Spanish as Hemisferio Occidental, but that term is quite rare.

As for the noun American, dictionaries also tell us that it is also ambiguous. The AHD says it refers to either ‘a native or inhabitant of America’, a term that is ambiguous, and, secondly, to ‘a citizen of the United States’, in that order. Other dictionaries reverse the order of the senses (COED) and others only mention one sense, namely ‘someone from the US’ (DOCE).

The appropriation (in English) of the terms America and American for a small part of the American continent is bad enough in itself from the perspective of other peoples living in the continent, from Canadians, to Cubans and Argentineans. But what is even worse, from some people’s perspective, is the transferring or calquing of those senses of the words America and American to the cognates of these words in other languages, such as Spanish América and americano/a. People who are not under the spell of the rightfulness of US dominance over the hemisphere tend to take umbrage at the notion that words like Sp. América and americano/a would be used to refer to the United States and to things American, respectively. On the other hand, there is no doubt that many Americans (in the sense of natives of the American continent) do just that, at least informally, just like many Europeans do too, in their respective languages using the cognate equivalents of these words.

What do Spanish dictionaries tell us about the term América y americano/a? Well, you will not find América in a regular Spanish dictionary, such as the Academy’s Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE). The reason is that traditionally, proper nouns such as this one are not defined in such dictionaries, unlike in their English counterparts. For that, one has to go to an encyclopedic dictionary (Sp. diccionario enciclopédico), such as Larousse’s Vox. This particular dictionary tells us that the word América in Spanish refers solely to a continent composed of two parts, North America and South America. The United States is not mentioned.[b]

There are two dictionaries that do mention the word América and the perils associated with its use: the Academy’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas and Academician Manuel Seco’s Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española. The former tells us that ‘we must avoid identifying the name of the continent with the United States of America, an outrageous use found mostly in Spain’.[c] The Diccionario de dudas, on the other hand, relays a warning by Ricardo Alfaro in his Diccionario de anglicismos (1964), namely that we should be aware that in English, the word America is used to refer to the US and not to the New World and that they do the same with the word americano.[d] That is all. The assumption seems to be that is not what anybody does with the cognate Spanish term América.

As for americano/a, we are told in the various dictionaries that this is an adjective that can also be used as a noun and that it has various senses, the first one of which in all of them can be paraphrased as ‘from the American continent or related to it’. However, all dictionaries also mention (admit?) that informally or colloquially, the word is used as a synonym of estadounidense, that is, ‘from the United States of America’ (MM).[e]

Thus, what we find is that Spanish speakers do use the terms América and americano/a to refer to the United States and all things American (from the US), such as people and movies, as an alternative to the more standard term estadounidense. However, those are said to be informal or colloquial uses of the words, which are not expected in more formal or serious uses of the language.

The tolerance towards this use varies, however, even in informal or colloquial contexts. Some people object to this change in usage, calqued from the English cognates, and to the ambiguity of the terms. There is no doubt that there is a danger that with overuse, what is now a secondary, informal sense may eventually become the main sense of the word, displacing the original one. Many Spanish speakers probably do not feel already that by using the word América they are going to be understood as referring to the whole continent, and the same goes for the adjective-cum-noun americano/a. That is why it would seem that Spanish speakers are using these words less and less according to the supposedly primary, dictionary meanings, resorting instead to alternatives such as las Américas or to circumlocutions, such as el continente americano for América, and de las Américas or del continente americano for the adjective americano/a. A language will do what it has to do and language change is unstoppable. Usage precedes law and if usage of these words is what it is, their meanings will end up changing, regardless of what dictionaries or other authorities say.





[a] The cognate nouns Eng. continent /ˈkɒn.tɪ.nənt/ ~ Sp. continente, derive from Lat. continēntem ‘holding together, continuous’ (con‑tin‑ēnt‑em; nominative: continēns), present participle of continēre ‘to hold, contain, enclose, etc.’, a verb derived from tenēre ‘to hold’ (source of Sp. tener ‘to have’) by addition of the prefix con‑ ‘with, together’, and source of the cognates Eng. contain ~ Sp. contener. In this sense, the noun continent originally (17th century) referred to the contrast between the New World and the Old World, but the concept eventually evolved to refer to contiguous landmasses, with some exceptions, as we have seen. (Before its use for landmasses, Eng. continent had been used with other senses, which are now obsolete.) English and Spanish also have adjective Eng. incontinent ~ Sp. incontinente, which mean ‘lacking voluntary control over urination or defecation’ (COED). In England, the Continent is used to refer to continental Europe, of which they are not too sure they are part of.

As to the question of how many continents there are, there is no correct answer. The concept of continent is not a natural one, but a cultural one, based on usefulness and usage. There is no need to insist that one division of the world into large land masses is better than any other.

[b] The first sentence of the original entry says: “Continente integrado por dos extensas masas de tierra de forma triangular: América del Norte y América del Sur, unidas por el istmo de Panamá (parte integrante de lo que se denomina América Central) y el archipiélago de las Antillas’ (Diccionario Enciclopédico Vox 1. © 2009 Larousse Editorial, S.L.).

[c] The original says: ‘Debe evitarse la identificación del nombre de este continente con los Estados Unidos de América (→ Estados Unidos, 4), uso abusivo que se da sobre todo en España.’

[d] The original: “‘En las traducciones del inglés debe tenerse siempre presente que entre los escritores de esa lengua es corriente usar el nombre América para referirse a los Estados Unidos y no al nuevo mundo’ (Alfaro). Algo similar hay que decir respecto al adjetivo y nombre americano, empleado por norteamericano o estadounidense”.

[e] DEL: sense 4: ‘estadounidense’. MM: sense 2: ‘(informal) De los Estados Unidos de América’. Larousse: sense 3: ‘coloquial Estadounidense, de Estados Unidos’. VOX: sense 4: ‘[persona] Que es de Estados Unidos. NOTA su uso es más frecuente en España’.




[1] Source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1935286 (obtained: 2017.09.11)

[2] Source: By User:Magicpiano - own work; structure (but not depicted areas of control) derived from File:Nouvelle-France map-en.svg, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9798531 (obtained: 2017.09.13)

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