Linguistic Colonialism in the New World

Dr Akira Saito (Visiting Scholar at the Centre of Latin American Studies, Wolfson College)

Saturday, 17 February 2001; 7:30-9:30pm

Armitage Room, Queens' College

At the turn of the 16th century, when Europeans first crossed the Atlantic and reached a mass of land hitherto unknown to them, they encountered a bewildering multitude of nations and languages. For those who engaged in the process of conquest and colonization, it was obvious that some kind of order must be imposed on this linguistic chaos. Otherwise they could not achieve effective control over the indigenous population. Not content with ensuring a basic level of communication with the natives, European colonizers initiated an utterly new communicative praxis through which their imperial claims could be unilaterally imposed on the colonized. Among those claims was conversion to Christianity. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the Church that decided on language policies and carried out programmes of linguistic acculturation. Missionaries took upon themselves the arduous task of learning local languages, reducing them to grammatical rules, and compiling dictionaries. They also made strenuous efforts to introduce a lingua franca, specifically designed to inculcate the Christian doctrine in the natives. On the other hand, native people were not passive recipients of the colonizers' programmes. They actively participated in them, sometimes in collaboration with Europeans, sometimes in conflict with them. Native people often succeeded in blocking an implementation of programmes or diverting their course and turning them to their advantage. In this paper, it is my intention to examine the intricate play of forces that shaped linguistic communication between Europeans and natives in the colonial period. The paper also seeks to illuminate some of the ways in which that play of forces ultimately led to the formation of the contemporary linguistic landscape of Latin America.