14 July 2010

sweet land of liberty

Seeing as our "great nation" just celebrated its 234th birthday, I thought the subject of "America" might be appropriate for my inaugural post.  We in the United States have a bit of a nasty habit of referring to ourselves as "Americans" and to our nation as "America."  This probably doesn't seem like a problem to a lot of people.  It is the United States of America after all.  Right?  Well I didn't realize it was a problem either until my 9th grade Spanish teacher very specifically pointed it out.

You see, "America" and "the Americas" actually refer to TWO WHOLE CONTINENTS!  That's over 900 million people (according to Wikipedia's population estimates) and over 600 million of them are citizens of nations other than the United States.  So when you say "America" in reference to the United States you are actually devaluing the lives of everyone in South America, Latin America, Mexico, and Canada (kind of like how when Catholics and Mormons refer to their respective churches as THE Church it sort of invalidates every other religion that ever existed).  As most of the population affected by "American" arrogance is Spanish speaking, the Spanish language fittingly has a word specific to citizens of the United States that makes no reference to the continent on which they (we) live: estadouinidense(s) (in Spanish, United States = Estados Unidos).

I haven't studied any languages other than Spanish, so I can't say if they are the only ones to come up with a better word, but why don't we have a similar word in English?  These words are apparently called demonyms- words used to describe inhabitants of a place, usually derived from the place name.  We have them for inhabitants of every other nation (Chinese, French, British, etc.) and even for many states (South Carolinian, Californian, Floridian...), but the only demonym we can come up with for ourselves is American--a word that applies to far more people than just those in the US.

The only answer I can come up with is that "United Statesan" is too cumbersome for the average lazy American tongue.  To combat this, I try to say "I'm from the US" rather than "I'm American" and "people in the US" rather than "Americans."  And of course it's always easy to replace "America" with "The US/United States" in writing and speech.

Language is a powerful tool on the path to equality (and in the maintenance of inequalities), and if I can make such a simple change to my speech to help level the playing field among my fellow beings/consciousnesses, I'm going to.

Update (7/15): Today I realized that in my arrogance I forgot a very important detail--that most of those Spanish speakers to our south are not really "American" either.  They are the descendants of European colonists as well.  The people who have been truly shunned by our appropriation of the word are the native and ancient inhabitants of these two continents: the Aztecs, Maya, Incas, Olmecs, and each of the large, unnameable number of tribes that lived and thrived in North America before the Europeans came and wiped them out with their Guns, Germs, and Steel (shout out to my man, Jarod Diamond!).

1 comment:

  1. Hey, girlie, this is your cousin you probably don't remember. Peace and love.


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