Colección de Lenguas Indigenas

Documentary heritage submitted by Mexico and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2007.

The patrimony proposed herein is a set of 166 books containing 128 titles, held at the Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco «Juan José Arreola» (Public Library of the State of Jalisco) in Guadalajara, Jalisco, México. These books are either written in indigenous languages or contain studies of those languages, and were elaborated for purposes of evangelization during the colonial period and the 19th century. The Colección de Lenguas Indígenas (as we shall call it), exists thanks to a series of historical circumstances that occurred mainly in the area known today as México. These tomes contain invaluable information covering four centuries of religious acculturation, and illustrate the modifications of languages that were spoken in an area of the Americas that stretched beyond the modern borders of the Mexican Republic. Furthermore, they are illustrative of the development of linguistic historiography and historical linguistics.

The very existence of books written in Amerindian languages that date from the early Colonial Period in Mexico is a situation whose importance it would be impossible to overstate. In their cultural development, early American languages cultivated oral traditions that were often complemented by pictographic writing. With the onset of European contact those traditions began to be written down using the Latin alphabet, which was adapted so as to be able to represent Mesoamerican vernaculars. This made it possible to record the speech of autochthonous groups and reproduce it at a distance, complete with grammatical components and most phonetic elements. It is precisely this feature that highlights the unique nature of this material, as it is well known that very few of the contact situations between the West and cultures from other latitudes in colonial times resulted in recordings of native languages. Moreover, even where this did take place, specialized studies of such materials did not appear until much later, as in colonial North América, Australia and Africa. In most of those settings, in fact, it was necessary to wait for the emergence of modern Ethnology and Linguistics in the 19th century to find interest in systematic analyses of the languages of indigenous peoples.

In the case of Spanish colonization, the juridical framework that evolved to legitimize Spanish permanence in these lands obliged the King to justify this presence among indigenous peoples using the cause of evangelization. From the outset, this initiative of religious acculturation was entrusted to the Mendicant Orders –Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian– while somewhat later the Jesuits and Ordinary Clergy also participated. Present in the Christian religion since apostolic times, language acquisition was for the missionaries a necessary facet of predication.

The first three Orders mentioned above had been involved in experiences of evangelization since the 13th century and, as a result, had developed a series of strategies for Christianizing that included preaching in the language of the evangelized in order to assure the correct understanding of the religious message among recent converts. It was thus that a communicative necessity –transmitting a religious creed– led to systematic studies and recordings of a variety of languages that modern linguists have since classified into no fewer than 18 different families.

At that exceptional moment in time, then, the conquering culture already possessed a series of conceptual tools that facilitated their learning of the structure of Mesoamerican languages: in Europe, Humanism had first proposed emphasizing the study and recovery of the structure of Latin that, in their view, had been adulterated in Medieval times. This perspective, combined with experiences of translating from Classical languages, led to the development of a series of procedures and reflections not only on the structure of those languages, but also of language in general and of its expressive specificities. These began to be applied, little-by-little, in the study of the European languages that had evolved from Vulgar Latin. Both Italian and Castillian had been objects of such reflections, the former by El Dante and Lorenzo Valla, the latter by Antonio Nebrija and, later, Juan de Valdés. Nebrija, in fact, elaborated a Gramatica (that is, a treatise on structure and correct usage, or «Grammar») of Castilian, but it was his Gramática Latina1 that served as a model for the study of indigenous American languages.

These events spurred the elaboration of a series of Artes or Gramáticas of New World languages and a variety of other texts (Vocabularios, Confesionarios, Catecismos, Sermonarios) dealing with those vernaculars. The early arrival of the printing press in New Spain (by 1539), propitiated the publication of such materials in mold letter and contributed to fixing and disseminating studies made by missionaries. Thus, the early dates and the systematic character of the contents of these books endow this particular collection with a double historical-cultural value. First, it has great value from the bibliographical perspective because of the details of the paper, composition and typography used in these early printings, and because publishing texts in indigenous languages became a particularly popular genre for the first printing presses in North America. Second, the collection has enormous linguistic value, as it conserves both authentic records of indigenous languages, some of which have since disappeared forever, and the conceptual tools that were used to study them. With respect to languages that are still used today, though by ever smaller numbers of speakers, these early Gramáticas preserve records of the forms they displayed at the moment of contact with the Spanish as grasped by the missionaires. Given that languages –understood as «live», dynamic beings– change over time, these Artes, Vocabularios and Catecismos preserve a specific
moment in the history of each one of these languages. One especially pertinent example of this is Náhuatl, the most widely-spoken language in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. In this case, the variant recorded by those early friar-authors is now categorized as the «classical» ancestor of its contemporary manifestations.

  • Year of submission: 2007
  • Year of inscription: 2007
  • Country: Mexico
Back to top