Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 24, 2019

The Multilingual Origin of the Unites States I: Spanish

The Multilingual Origin of the Unites States I: Spanish

By Michele C. Dávila

North America

North American lands claimed by European powers in 1700, including New France, New Spain, and the 13 British colonies

The names of many of the states and cities of the United States of America reveal much about the multicultural, and therefore, multilingual origins of this country. Many of these names were established centuries before its independence. First of all, we have the name America, that is the feminine form of Americus, the Latinized version of the first name of the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the continent from 1501-1503. It was in 1507 that the first world map produced by German Martin Waldseemüller was published with the name America for the continent. That means that all individuals of this side of the world have the right to call themselves Americans. In fact, the world, including the US, used to catalog it as one continent until after World War II when the United States decided to make a division between North and South America (forgetting Central America all together) and started teaching that the Americas were two continents. The rest of the world still catalogs the so-called “New World” (new to non-native peoples) as one continent, which is the reason the Olympics’ symbol is comprised of five rings: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and America.

The first European language spoken in what is today US territory was Spanish (Old Norse was the first one spoken in parts of what is known today as Canada). The first settlement was San Agustín, Florida, founded in 1565, today St. Augustine. The Spaniards maintained settlements in the area of what is now Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana during the 16th century and part of the 17th century. It is estimated that at this time there were 300 indigenous languages north of Mexico, and another 300 south of Mexico including Central America.

Of the names of the 50 states, 22 come directly from native languages, and a few others come from Spanish and French. The Spanish started their colonization through missions throughout the territory that were in use for many years. They existed in Florida (1565-1709), Georgia (1568-1684), The Carolinas (1566-1670), Louisiana (1763-1801), Texas (1689-1830), New Mexico (1598-present day), Arizona (1629-1828), and California (1726-1834). Their aim was to convert the indigenous people. This contact proved quite lethal to these native communities due to the transmission of European diseases for which they had not natural defenses.

The following eight states’ names come either directly from Spanish or were named by Spaniards deriving them from other languages:

Arizona is a state whose territory was under Spanish influence since 1539. The origin of its name is debated. Some sources say that Spaniards called it that way from an O’odham phrase “alĭ sonak” that means “little spring,” but most likely it comes from the Basque phrase “aritz ona” meaning “good oak,” which was the name of a ranch in what is today the Mexican state of Sonora near where slabs of silver were found 1737, something which put this region on the map. Another suggested source of the name Arizona is the Spanish phrase árida zona ‘dry zone’, but that is surely not the case, if nothing else because the order of the words is so unnatural in Spanish. This desert region was Mexican territory until they were ‘ceded’ to the US in 1848 after the Mexican-American war, with some portions staying Mexican until 1853.

California, first sighted by Europeans in 1542, is a made-up Spanish name that comes from the book Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandian) by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, published in 1510. The novel represents a fictional island with the name California ruled by a queen called Califia. Until the 18th century it was believed that California was an island. The Spanish established twenty-one Catholic missions in this territory and from the names of those missions, mostly taken from the names of Catholic saints, come the names of many Californian cities. Some of them are: San Diego (the first one founded, in 1769), San Luis Obispo (1772), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara (1777), Santa Bárbara (1786), Santa Cruz (1791), San José (1797), and San Francisco (1823). Other cities with religious Spanish names are San Bernardino, San Benito, San Mateo, San Joaquín, Sacramento, Merced and Los Angeles, which is derived from a virgin’s name (originally Asistencia [meaning sub-mission] Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles). Other well-known Spanish city names in California are Monterey (King’s mountain), originally a “presidio” (royal fort) and later first capital city of California until 1850, Calaveras (Skulls), El Dorado (The Golden One), Placer (Pleasure), and Plumas (Feathers). California was part of Mexico until 1847.

Colorado is a Spanish word that means ‘red’, which was given to this region due to the color of the soil that gives its color to the Colorado River. Its eastern side was part of Mexico until 1803, the central part until 1845 and the western side until 1848.

Florida was discovered by Juan Ponce de León in 1513 while looking for the fountain of youth, and it remained a part of Spain until 1819. The name Florida is derived from the Spanish phrase Pascua Florida (Easter), because it was during this holiday that the Spaniards saw the territory for the first time.

Montana comes from the Spanish word “montaña,” meaning mountain, but interestingly it was instead explored by Frenchmen and was part of the French territory of Louisiana until 1803.

The name of the state of Nevada comes from a Spanish word nevada, meaning ‘snowed’, derived from the word nieve, meaning ‘snow’. It is a shortened version of the phrase Sierra Nevada, meaning ‘snowed mountain range’. The other famous Spanish name of the state is Las Vegas, that means ‘the fertile plains’. Nevada was part of Mexico until 1848.

The name New Mexico, or Nuevo México in Spanish, is recorded for the first time in 1563. The word Mexico itself comes from the Nahuatl name for the Valley of Mexico region, which was the heart of the Aztec empire. The name for this region comes from a native ethnonym, since it meant something like ‘place of the Mexica’, a Nahuatl-speaking people from this region, and some think that that name may come from the name of a legendary leader and war priest. An interesting fact is that in 1995 the state of New Mexico designated the bilingual song “New Mexico – Mi lindo Nuevo México” as the official state song, a first for this nation. Santa Fe, meaning holy faith, has been the capital since 1610.

Texas had been explored by the Spaniards since the 1540s. In the Chronica de la provincia de N.S.P.S. [Chronicle of the Provice of Our Lady Perpetuo Soccorro], written in 1737, Francisco de Zacatecas mentions Texas as the name for the indigenous people living in the area and as a province. It is believed that the name comes from the Native American Caddo word táyshaʼ that means ‘friend’ or ‘ally’. The letter X at the time was pronounced like English sh in Spanish, which explains the spelling of the word Texas. Later when the sound sh changed to h in Spanish, all spellings of words containing this sound were changed from X to J in the 19th century, except in in word of well-known place names, such as Mexico and Texas. The English pronunciation of this word is, of course, what is known as a ‘spelling pronunciation’. A curious detail is that Spanish also has a word teja (plural: tejas) that means ‘roof tile’, used to refer to the typical terracotta roof tile used on traditional Spanish houses in some parts of Latin America. The Spaniards called the place La misión de San Francisco de los Texas. Texas also had missions such as San Antonio where the Álamo, meaning ‘poplar tree’, is located.

Spanish wasn’t the only European language that has left its imprint on the place names US territories in the Americas. France had a lot to do with what we know today as the United States. Stay tuned to the next Lingua Franca for information on some of those names.

Some of the basic information in this article is taken from the sites State Symbols USA, Fact Monster, Infoplease, and Facebook.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: