Entangled Histories, Catholic Missions and Languages: Mapping Amerindian, African and Asian Languages Through Portuguese in Early Modernity

From Firenze University Press Journal: CROMOHS

University of Florence
4 min readMar 24, 2023

Angelo Cattaneo, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche — CNR

The Space of Languages

This essay focuses on a set of metalinguistic and multilingual documents, mostly in print, which for the first time brought together, described, and translated a vast set of languages unknown in Europe prior to Portuguese expansion and the missions, particularly the Jesuit ones, associated with it. Throughout the missions in the Portuguese Empire and under Royal Patronage (Padroado), the Portuguese language, Latin, and, to a more limited extent, Spanish and Italian, served as the first European translational languagesfor Tamil and Malayalam (Dravidic languages); Konkani, Marathi and Bengali (Indo-Aryan languages); Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese; three Brazilian‘general languages’ (Tupi and Tupi-Guarani); Kimbundu, Kikongo, and Sena (Bantu languages), among others. To get a sense of the extent of this phenomenon, let us consider that in 1595 the Jesuit press published a grammar of Tupi-Guarani, printed in Coimbra, but prepared and edited in São Paulo, Brazil, by the Spanish Jesuit José de Anchieta SJ (1534–1597) in collaboration with several local students.1In contrast, in the same year it published, in Amakusa, in the Kyushu region of Japan, a trilingual Latin–Portuguese–Japanese dictionary, with approximately 27,000 entries for each of the three languages.2The majority of linguistic studies dealing with the corpus of documents that use Portuguese as the translational language describe specific bilingual contacts, generally from a one-direction linguistic perspective (e.g., Portuguese–Tamil, Portuguese–Japanese, Portuguese–Tupi, etc.).

Within this intellectual landscape, the important documentary value of these corpora hasall but gone unnoticed in terms of the history and periodisation of early modern culture, and not only with regard to the history of linguistics, lexicography, and grammatology. The implications of this shift in analysis perspective are strong in three main areas: the relationship between empires and languages; the current debate on the periodisation of connected histories; and the formation,in early modernity, of a new concept of spatiality, which clearly and explicitly included the spatiality of languages, in connection with and overlapping political, tradeand religious spaces.In the light of the valuable methodology contributed by area studies3and my own research in the exploratory project ‘The Space of Languages. The Portuguese Language in the Early Modern World (15th–17th centuries),’ conducted at the New University of Lisbon between 2014 and 2016,4it is possible to design a comprehensive geography of the languages first described and translated through Portuguese in early modernity. Examination of the sources supports the research hypothesis of a global emergence of new multilingual spaces, communities, and identities in the heterogeneous contexts of the missions within the territories of the Portuguese Empire in 1500–1700.

Comprising primers for learning basic literacy skills through short Christian catechisms (cartilhas), Christian doctrines outlining the precepts of the Christian faith, the message of the Gospel, the revelation, the dogmas and the sacraments, sometimes in dialogue form (Doctrina Christãa or Doutrina Christam), grammars (artes da língua), and dictionaries(vocabularios), these sources provide a key framework for an analysis with an original contribution to make to early modern global cultural history, its periodisation and its spatialisation. The documents considered refer to highly differentiated contexts of missionary and political interaction. In some cases, as in Brazil, on the coasts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, missions existed within the framework of Portuguese military occupations and conquests. In Japan, China, and the Tonkin region, missionaries found themselves operating in rather asymmetrical contexts, outside or, at most, on the margins of the Portuguese military and mercantile presence. Despite these contextual differences, analysis of this documentation indicates, for all the contexts considered, that the times and spaces of accumulation of cultural and linguistic processes and practices are inherently extensive. They require a broad periodisation, to be traced in documentary form, and a look at extended spaces, for the dynamics to become clear in a comparative and connected form. As an example, analysis of linguistic practices in the Jesuit missions in Japan, China, and Brazil reveals that the emergence of bilingual or trilingual lexicons or grammars took no less than forty to fiftyyears on average, from the beginning of the missions with the first word lists, during which time more complete documents were gradually drawn up. For these specific structural reasons, the present essay considers a time span from circa 1540 to 1700 and a plurality of locations. This period and the extensive spatiality of missions related to the Portuguese Empire allow us to capture in documentary form the sedimentation of cultural, linguistic, and translation practices that would otherwise remain invisible. Below is a selectlist of these documents, mainly in print, divided by macro geographical areas, following an internal chronological order, starting with India, followed by Japan, China, Tonkin, Brazil,and sub-Saharan Africa.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/cromohs-13822

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/13822



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