I Found It at the JCB



Indigenous Languages and the Spanish.
Juan de la Cruz, Doctrina christiana, Mexico, 1571.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

< click on image for enlargement >

Indigenous Language Proficiency among Spanish Clergy in Mexico

by Daniel Wasserman

Among the rich collections at the JCB, I found one source of particular interest for my research on religious conversion in early Mexico: the Doctrina christiana en la lengua guasteca co[n] la lengua castellana (Mexico: Pedro Ocharte, 1571), published by the Augustinian friar Juan de la Cruz. The prefatory material found in such a volume often seems non-essential; I have found, however, it can offer surprising insights into Spanish knowledge of indigenous languages.

When an author sought to publish an indigenous-language religious text in early Mexico, he generally had to obtain the approval of examiners whom colonial and Church authorities considered learned in both Catholic doctrine and in the given Native American tongue. The “aprobaciones” (endorsements) contained in the preliminary pages of published texts usually attest to the good doctrine of the work and its use of clear language. Given the rather formulaic wording of these aprobaciones, one might understandably question how much they can actually tell us about the linguistic capabilities of these examiners. Did they actually know the given indigenous language, or did they merely wish to save face in relating that the book contained sound doctrine and appropriate language?

The preliminary pages of Juan de la Cruz’s Doctrina christiana provide a hint toward answering this question. The two friars asked to provide an endorsement for this text indicate that the Castilian-language portion measures up to Catholic doctrine, but then, the friars actually admit to not understanding Huastec, the other main language contained in the book. Fray Bartolomé de Ledesma, the religious authority in charge of finding two examiners for this book, then decided to procure four individuals with knowledge of the Huastec language. He found one diocesan priest, in addition to three laymen, all of whom reported that the Huastec-language section corresponded to the Castilian, which the two friars had already approved.

The candid response from Ledesma’s friars suggests that endorsements were not merely formulaic, indicating that we can learn something about indigenous language proficiency by looking at the aprobaciones of publications in early Mexico.

Daniel Wasserman was the Barbara S. Mosbacher Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library during the summer of 2011.



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