January 2017 Archives

Language and the Ancient History of a New World

Valeria López FadulProvost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

There was once in Mexico City a painter named Baltasar de Echave. It was a time (the early seventeenth century) when the city’s Basque community was thriving. Echave, a man of distinction, grew increasingly concerned with what he believed to be the demise of the Basque language. The New World and its promises of gold and never-ending wealth lured many young people into perpetual exile from their ancestral homelands in the Iberian Peninsula, causing them to abandon their ancient estates. When these men and women reached the Indies their descendants adopted Castilian for convenience and abandoned Basque. In the same way that the disappearance of the Taínos of Hispaniola brought about a formal end to their spoken tongues, Echave feared that Basque too would fade away.[i]

The languages of the Caribbean were declining, their only vestiges the islands’ place names. But the situation of Basque could still be reversed. This compelled Echave to publish a treatise entitled the Discursos de la antigüedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada in 1607. In it he celebrated his language’s nobility and expressive qualities.                 

Above all, however, Echave’s treatise stressed the antiquity of Basque. Like many other early modern thinkers, Echave believed that Basque had been the primordial and most widespread tongue of Spain and that it held a special place amongst the languages of mankind, including those spoken in the Americas. Furthermore, Echave trusted that the rapidly changing linguistic situation of the Indies could illuminate many of the forces that had acted upon Basque before histories were recorded. It could help show how this once general tongue was now spoken only by a few.

In other words, an understanding of the history and development of ancient indigenous societies like those of Mesoamerica or the Andes region together with the many demographic, political, economic, and environmental transformations brought about by one hundred years of Spanish rule could serve scholars like Echave “as examples and live portraits of what it was once like in the Old World.” Language and its transformations represented a way to stream back to the unrecorded past, to gain insight into the experiences of previous generations, to learn about people’s origins and the histories of the regions they inhabited. Language was an archive of knowledge.

The early modern Hispanic territories, like all pre-modern societies, were multilingual. The Spanish king viewed this polyglossia as a necessary corollary of ruling over the wide array of lands, climates, and natures that made up his vast composite realms. Writers of all genres were invested in studying languages and considered the knowledge that words contained as central to resolving a great variety of questions. Etymology, or the study of names, had the capacity to reveal great amounts of information about the objects that words signified and could be approached in diverse ways. These ranged from the exegetical to the mystical, to the historical, to the philosophical. Place names contained traces of their founders. The names of plants and animals revealed traces of those who had named them. The words used to designate objects and rituals betrayed clues about their purposes and functions.

Pages upon pages of etymological discussions abound in the writings of the first chroniclers of the Indies. Throughout the course of my research on the philosophy of language in early Latin America I came to appreciate the significance of these extensive linguistic digressions. They offer a window into the ways in which native authorities explained the foundation of their towns, their genealogies, and the order of the flora and fauna that surrounded them.

The island of Hispaniola, only recently known by its Hispanic appellation, was actually, and more meaningfully, called Haití. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457–1526), like most sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Indies, began his history of the Caribbean by presenting the etymology of the words that the natives used to designate their homeland. He distinguished between their ancient language and their current one and attempted to explain the reasoning behind the toponyms. The primitive inhabitants of those islands had given first the name of Quizqueia and then Haití to Hispaniola. These denominations, he warned, “were not the children of fickleness, but of the meaning that they had.” Quizqueia is “a big thing that does not have an equal.” This word signified “vastness, universe, everything.” Martire compared this name to the word Pan (all) that the Greeks used to refer to their islands, since, like the Caribbean Indians, they believed that their “magnitude was the whole orb, and that the sun does not warm anything else [but theirs] and the neighboring islands.”

Haití was equally expressive. It signified, in the ancient language of the islanders, roughness. The natives of Haití applied the designation to the whole territory, through metonymy. In many parts of Haití “expanses of steep mounts can be found, thick and terrifying jungles, and fearful and dark valleys given the altitude of its mounts, and in other parts it is very pleasant.” In their use of metonymy, Martire reflected that the Indians resembled the poets that sometimes referred to all of Italy as Lazio (Latium), which was formally the name of one central region. Quizqueia contained clues as to the native’s worldview and Haití information about the physical landscape of the island.[ii]

Martire’s intellectual rival Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557) used the study of names to convey his authoritative eyewitness status when describing countless plants and animals previously unknown to Europeans. The iguanas that lived throughout the islands and on the mainland were not, as Martire had claimed, similar to the crocodiles of the Egyptian Nile. These new world “dragons” were much smaller than those creatures. It was unclear to Oviedo whether they were aquatic or terrestrial and whether they could be consumed during Lent. That was best for each to decide.

Despite his uncertainties, Oviedo could attest to their size, since he had seen many of them and even kept a few in his home. The “yuana,” he explained meticulously, “is pronounced y and after a short interval u and then the three subsequent letters ana are uttered together, and in this way in the whole name [one] makes two stops in the manner in which it has been described.”[iii] Oviedo went to great pains to replicate the sounds of the animal’s native name.

When Echave published his book 50 years after the death of Oviedo, his friend Fernándo de Ojeda composed a short prologue to exalt the treatise’s accomplishments.  Thinking about the linguistic change that had ensued since the arrival of the first Spaniards as a consequence of conquest and population demise, Ojeda challenged the notion that the spread of empire is always accompanied by the complete linguistic assimilation of those defeated. “Even though it is true,” Ojeda conceded, “that, as it has always been said, conquerors and their languages consume the speeches of vanquished peoples: This does not apply to the names of provinces, mountains, rivers, and springs, even if they are a bit altered, as we experience in the infinite provinces of these Indies, which still conserve with little variation its ancient names, because even though we renamed many of them in the Spanish fashion: these have been forgotten or have fallen out of use altogether and the old names of the Indians prevail, even after all of them have died-out in some parts.” Ojeda presented the case of the Caribbean islands and other regions in the mainland, like “Cuba, which the Spaniards named in the beginning Fernandina,” and also “in Habana, Bayamo, Jamayca, Yucatan, Chapultepec, Campeche, Mexico, Mechuacan, Tezcuco, Tlaxcala and Cholula, which are all Indian words.”[iv] The omnipresence of long-winded and excruciatingly detailed etymological discussions, despite seeming fantastical and naive to a modern reader, reveals just how central they were to the early modern scholar in ascertaining and presenting to a distant audience reliable and authoritative local knowledge.

 Plantin Press, 1598). Original in the Jonh Carter Brown Library at Brown University.










Detail from Abraham Ortelius’ map of Cuba and surrounding islands showing the names Hispaniola and “Ayti.” Abraham Ortelius, “Hispaniolae, Cubae, aliarumque insularum circumiacientium, delineatio,” Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Plantin Press, 1598). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. 










Detail from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias. 1a. parte (Sevilla: En la emprenta de Juana Cromberg, 1535). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



[i] Baltasar de Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada compuestos por Balthasar de Echave, natural de la Villa de Çumaya en la Provincia de Guipuzcoa, y vezino de Mexico. (Mexico : Henrrico Martínez, 1607), 83r.-84v.

[ii] Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, Décadas del Nuevo Mundo, trans. by Edmundo O’Gorman (México: J. Porrúa, 1964), 2 vols., Decade III, Book VII, p. 351.

[iii] Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo, Historia General de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano (Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851), Book XII, Cap. VII, pp. 392-396, p. 393.

[iv]  Fray Hernando de Ojeda, “ Fray Hernando de Ojeda de la orden de Santo Domingo a su amigo, Balthasar de Echave en loor de esta obra,” in Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada.


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