New Worlds: the language of the ‘new’
The language of early American colonial encounter was predicated, more often than not, on the apparent discovery of the new.
The language of early American colonial encounter was predicated, more often than not, on the apparent discovery of the new. New to European eyes, ears, and tastes, of course, but Indigenous cultures were hardly new in any other sense of the word. Perhaps it’s not surprising that early modern man used the word new in such an easy and uninhibited way. They understood themselves to be the civilised centre, with the Americas the peripheral and primitive other, and they configured the language of newness and cultural difference through printed texts especially with ease and impunity.
The opening up of this New Eden, a trope so often used in English narratives to describe the North American landscape, served to underpin this asymmetric power dynamic further. Conflating the possibilities of Christian renewal and proselytization with an impression of limitless natural abundance, this ‘New Eden’ served the purposes of European religious and economic interests very well.
Coinage of the terms New World, New Spain, New France, and New England, also assume certain time markers, designating certain places in the Americas as sites of new beginnings and establishing a language of origins. Carrying with it implications of purity, veracity and authenticity, the language of beginnings and origins in European texts effaces the histories and lived experiences of Indigenous people whose cultures evolved long before colonial contact. And again, it’s not surprising that early modern Europeans would think in these ways; these narratives and the construction of this history was unabashedly from their own point of view.
There’s nothing exceptional about the fact that Europeans privileged their own worldview above that of others. The more urgent observation and conversation is really about how we conceptualise and narrate our current relational engagement with the world, its people and its ecologies. In 2020, a year marked by a confluence of world changing events and grassroots political engagement, an examination of the logic of newness, as it was constructed in the early modern Atlantic world and perpetuated since, might have its moment yet.