Wednesday, May 19, 2010

5 is Never Enough

Many Americans might think the question of how many continents exist on Earth should be settled (of course, the demotion of Pluto as a planet a few years back ought to remind everybody that even "established" facts can change). But in Latin America, where I've lived and worked since 2005, the established number of continents students learn is five: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and...America.

Already, us United Statesians are considered arrogant for claiming "American" as a nationality, when it's seen as a continentality akin to "European" for most in the rest of the hemisphere (that's a whole other post), so trying to separate the Americas is viewed as a knock against Latin Americans: "North Americans don't want to be on the same continent as Latinos." This, of course, conveniently ignores the grouping of Central America and the Caribbean, regions soaked in Latin-based languages and their associated cultures, soundly in North America.

I've had arguments with both students and other professors regarding this slight difference in continental calculation. Fivers argue that America should be counted as one landmass because it's so separate from the others, and that Europe, Asia, and Africa—all three of which are connected to each other—should be counted separately because of the varied cultures. Poor Antarctica is consigned to continental limbo because she has no human population native to her frozen expanses.

I, a staunch sevener, counter that technically, there should be four continents, since the very word comes from the Latin, terra continens (thanks, AskOxford!*), which means "continuous land." Ignoring the divisions caused by the man-made Suez and Panama canals, America, Eurafrasia, Antarctica, and (maybe) Australia are each continuous lands. My argument, however, is that since Eurafrasia is indeed considered three continents by both camps, North and South America, connected by svelte and sexy Panama and her 37-mile waist, should only naturally be counted as separate. And, considering continental drift and geologic history, the isthmus that comprises Central America is indeed very, very young, having risen from the ocean a scant three million years ago, while South America started separating from Africa 130 million years ago and North America from Europe 70 million before that.

I don't know how the Brits or other English-speaking countries view things, or how many continents other teachers accept in their classes; on my tests, it's seven. Get it right.

*In the interest of fairness, I consulted the Real Academia Española for the official Spanish-language definition and got cada una de las grandes extensiones de tierra separadas por los océanos ("each one of the large extensions of land separated by oceans," basically, no real help for either argument).
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