- Vitor Tavares
- From BBC News Brazil in Sao Paulo
Think fast: what term do you use in Portuguese to refer to those born in the United States of America?
American? North American? American?
Regardless of your answer, it is correct, according to Portuguese language manuals and dictionaries. But your choice can reveal, in a way, how you think…
The Houaiss Dictionary, one of the most respected in Portuguese, puts the terms as equivalent: “American = relative to the United States of America (United States of America) or what is its native or inhabitant; American, North American, Yankee.”
The Portuguese language teacher and consultant Thais Nicoleti also clarifies that the use of each one is optional — although the dispute over it is not new.
“It is worth noting that the name of the country is ‘United States of America’, as well as the full name of Brazil, which was once ‘United States of Brazil’, is ‘Federative Republic of Brazil’. ‘United States’ or ‘Federative Republic ‘ refer to the type of country. The name, in fact, is what comes after: America and Brazil.”
Rules and standards aside, the use of “American” has often been questioned by news readers and social media commentators.
After all: if there is a continent “America”, how can “American” identify only one country? This discussion dates back to the emergence of the US as a nation.
The origin of “America”, country and continent
The first record of the appearance of the word “America” is a 1507 map by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The most accepted theory is that the “baptism” was a tribute to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (Amerigo Vespucci), who first identified the landmass of the so-called “New World” as a continent separated from the others by oceans.
The first record of “America” as part of the name of the country United States is credited to the draft of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776. Before, the region was known as Thirteen Colonies and, later, United Colonies – at the time, these territories were that came together to form the new country, the first independent country on the American continent.
Canadian Sean Purdy, professor of US History at the University of São Paulo (USP), points out other names proposed at the time: Imperial America, Greater Republic and Greater United States.
According to the professor, the adjective “American” (as in “American music”) and the noun “American” (“he is American”) began to be used soon after the founding of the republic, coexisting with regional or state names, such as Southerner (Southern), New Yorker (New Yorker) or of ancestry such as Scottish (Scottish) and Irish (Irish).
“But consistent usage took time, because the founders knew that the new republic did not include all of America. For decades, many rulers used ‘United States’, ‘the Republic’, ‘the Union’ and ‘Columbia’ for the country.” says Purdy.
It was only when the US became a power at the end of the 19th century, with external interventions in Latin America, that the term “America” came into common usage.
“Presidents and other rulers of the republic rarely referred to the country as America until the late 19th century. After the 1898 Spanish-American War against Spain, when the US conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and everyone since then began to use ‘America’ as their country. It therefore reflects how language is constructed in contexts of power and social relations,” reflects Purdy.
Why in Brazil do we adopt “American”?
Although Brazilians rarely use the name “America” to refer to the United States, “Americano” remains the most common gentile in the country.
In other languages, such as Spanish spoken in Latin America or French spoken in Canada, the most commonly used would be the equivalent of “American”.
“I believe this has a lot to do with the fact that Spanish speakers in the Americas identify more with the term America and with other Latin American countries (especially where they speak Spanish) than Brazilians. identifies so much with the rest of the Americas”, says Sean Purdy.
Consultant Thaís Nicoleti points out that “American” has been written this way in Brazil since the works of writers Machado de Assis and Lima Barreto, “which attests that this was a common form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” In the Memories of Prisonby Graciliano Ramos, a book written in the 1930s, both “American” and “North American” appear with the same meaning.
An aversion to US “imperialism” (a policy of expansion and territorial and cultural domination) would be the main reason for the effort to use the term “American”, according to the two experts consulted.
“Many researchers want to distinguish the US from the rest of the Americas. This has to do with an anti-imperialist policy towards the US and also to reinforce the links and identities between Brazil and other Latin American countries”, says Sean Purdy, about the academia.
Thaís Nicoletti, on the other hand, associates the use of “American” or “North American” to left-wing publications, as an attempt to “prevent a single country, not by chance the imperialist power of America, from taking for itself the gentile of all the continent”.
For her, this argument “doesn’t seem to have any basis”, since the context would not allow us to confuse the “American” referring to the country with its homonym related to the continent”.
“In my view, although they can translate a political position, these uses, by themselves, have an almost insignificant effect as a form of resistance. coming from the ‘giant of the North'”, he opines.
But can that change?
The Portuguese teacher explains that “rule”, in language, is “regularity”, that is, what is repeated frequently.
In the case of gentiles, although there are some suffixes that appear more frequently (such as -ês in English, French or Senegalese), there is a great diversity of forms.
Nicoleti explains the case of “Fluminense”, which designated both those born in the State of Rio de Janeiro and those born in the city of Rio de Janeiro until the beginning of the 20th century. The carioca, which at first had a pejorative meaning, ended up being adopted by the population of the capital in the following years.
“All this discussion about the use of which term is legitimate. But the eventual majority adoption of the American term, for example, will depend on whether there are significant changes in social relations, power relations between countries, closer identification with other Latin American countries.” I don’t see that happening in the near future,” says Professor Sean Purdy.
“In language, not everything is reduced to ‘right/wrong’ — in fact, everything can always be deepened”, completes Nicoleti.
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