Language as Instrument of Empire

Colonial Counterpoint: New World Texts as Sites of Encounter, 1492-1800

Language as Instrument of Empire

1492 marked not only the arrival of Columbus to the Indies and the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, but also the publication of Elio Antonio de Nebrija’s Castilian grammar, the first in a modern European language.  A newly unified Spain was poised to impose its will over a formidable overseas empire.  The conquest was to be fought not only with the sword but also with the pen, as Nebrija’s dedication to Queen Isabella made clear:  “language was always the companion of empire.”

Missionary activity in the newly conquered lands began almost immediately, but instead of primarily teaching native populations to speak Spanish, the first orders of mendicant friars learned native languages.  And it was Nebrija’s widely read Latin grammar, Introductiones latinae that provided the model for the first Amerindian grammars.

New World Grammars and Vocabularies

Featured here are examples of the earliest efforts to alphabetize Mesoamerican languages by some of the first missionaries:  Andrés de Olmos, Alonso de Molina, and Maturino Gilberti.  These rare Mexican incunabula are among the first books published in the New World after printing arrived in 1539.  As grammars and vocabularies of Amerindian languages for missionary purposes, they attest to the role of the early printing press as an instrument of empire under Spanish rule.  Yet they also reveal the care and effort of this first generation of linguists to understand native languages.

Nahuatl was the language of the Mexica and the lingua franca of their Aztec empire.  Fray Andrés de Olmos (c. 1485-1571) produced the first extant Nahuatl grammar, which he finished in 1547 only 26 years after the fall of of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.  In his Arte de la lengua mexicana, Olmos reveals both admiration for his object of study and a note of condescension.  He notes that while Antonio de Nebrija’s method was suited to Latin grammar, Nahuatl requires a different approach because it “lacks” certain things.  He concludes that he hopes not to be “reprehensible if I don’t follow Antonio’s order to the letter.”  Below, a two-spread opened to the beginning of a chapter on pronouns.

Two-page spread, Arte de la lengua mexicana (1574)

The Vocabulario en lengua de Mechuacán (1559), below, is the earliest Mexican imprint at the Latin American Library and the first bilingual dictionary of an American language.  It was published only twenty years after the establishment of printing in the Americas by the first printer, Juan Pablos.  The author of the Vocabulario, Fray Maturino Gilberti, 1498-1585, was a French Franciscan priest and among the first generation of missionaries sent to the New World.  He worked mainly in the state of Michoacán that was homeland to the Aztec’s rival empire of the Tarascans whose lingua franca was the local Purépecha language.

Page from the Vocabulario en lengua de Mechuacán (1559)

Instruments for Conversion

Fray Diego de Valadés, 1533-1582, was a Franciscan painter, missionary and theologian whose Rhetorica christiana (1579) serves as both a treatise on preaching and an apologia of Franciscan missions in the New World.  Born in Mexico, the son of a Spanish conqueror and an Indian woman, Valadés was a gifted linguist and eloquent orator.  A protégé of Pedro de Gante, he attended the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, a school for the sons of native nobility in Mexico City, and became an expert in Amerindian languages including Nahuatl, Otomí and Purépecha, not to mention Spanish and Latin.  Valadés worked as a missionary before leaving Mexico for France, Spain and Italy.  The first edition of Valadés’ masterpiece held in the Latin American Library includes extensive discussion and his own illustrations of indigenous religious practices and didactic methods of conversion.  Shown below, is Valadés’ most well-known woodcut. A Franciscan missionary (perhaps Gante, or Valadés himself), preaches from a Renaissance-inspired pulpit while native students, elegantly dressed in Roman togas, listen attentively.

Wood-cut from Rhetorica cristiana (1579)

Another wood-cut from Valadés’ Rhetorica displays a chart exalting the missionary activities of Franciscans, depicting such activities as administering the rites of baptism, marriage and other sacraments.  Of note at top right is the figure of Fray Pedro de Gante indoctrinating natives using the pictorial symbols he developed, as illustrated in the Testerian manuscript discussed below.

Wood-cut from the Rhetorica cristiana (1579)

A very interesting instrument developed for indoctrination is this rare Testerian catechism featuring a curious didactic method developed by the Franciscans to teach Catholic doctrine through visual symbols in an attempt to mimic native pictorial language.  The method consisted of deploying pictures (a cross, a church) to evoke those objects as pronounced in the native language that would, in turn, harken to the Spanish word: a banner (pantli) and a nopal fruit (nochtil) reading as Pater noster, to use an example from Elizabeth Boone. The pictures thus functioned as rebus-like mnemonic devices, and they most likely were not very effective since they reflected European conceptions of how Mesoamericans related to written texts rather than to actual practice. The genre of pictorial catechisms was named for Franciscan Friar Jacobo de Testera and developed by Fray Pedro de Gante, c.1525.

Two-page spread from a Testerian catechism (c. 1570s)

Finally, the Confesionario mayor en la lengua mexicana y castellana(1565) was an early manual written in both Spanish and Nahuatl by the first Spanish lexicographer of the New World, Alonso de Molina, 1510-1579, for use by Catholic priests to conduct the ritual of confession with native Nahuatl speakers.  Molina was brought to the New World as a child by his parents, and he learned Nahuatl at a very early age.

Frontispiece, Confesionario mayor en la lengua mexicana y castellana (1565)