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Lost Language Found
October 11, 2010 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on Lost Language Found

The archaeologists found the letter under a pile of adobe bricks in the ruins of an old Dominican church near Trujillo in Peru. Scrawled on the back of the letter was a column of Spanish numbers and their translation into a language previously lost to history.

The letter, buried in the ruins of the Magdalena de Cao Viejo church at the El Brujo Archaeological Complex in northern Peru, was discovered in 2008.

Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, decided to keep their discovery secret until the research showing evidence of the lost language was published this month in the journal American Anthropologist.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how many languages were spoken in pre-contact times,” Quilter said. “Linguistically, the relationship between the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous was very complex.”

Within the space of a generation or two, Spanish conquerors had penetrated deeply into two continents, documenting some 500 different indigenous languages in the course of missionary activity, according to the Count of la Viñaza, a late 19th century Spanish diplomat and academic who published notable works on linguistics.

To promote that missionary activity was high on the agenda of the Castilian throne, so in 1550, the king ordered that all the Indios learn Spanish. But there was pushback from the missionaries on the ground. “That can never be,” answered one friar, “unless it were something vaguely and badly learnt.” Comisario General Juan de Mansilla complained too: “We are too few to teach the language of Castile to Indians. They do not want to speak it.”

So Spanish as the companion of empire was out. And without the anchor of literacy and the sinews of the nation-state, pre-contact Indian languages were diffuse, with a different dialect for each hill, so a new set of linguist were required for each entrada, as the latest conquistador penetrated the latest frontier. And these interpreters, so essential to the process―illiterate, untrained, and pressed into service at blade point of Toledo steel―well, they sucked.

So the Spanish Empire turned to the languages of those earlier empires that it had put to fire and sword. Nahuatl, the language of the previous round of conquerors, the Aztecs, was the language of missionary instruction and administration, since the Indians in Mexico were ruled apart. But indigenous elites took the language and ran with it, preserving what they could of the old ways, and using the old language as a new vehicle for the new ways. (I love the sound of this language, here’s a recitation of a poem by Nezahualcoyotl, last tlatoani of Texcoco.)

In Peru, the Incan Quechua fit the same bill, but then later became the choice of the Spanish conquerors themselves or at least the Criollo landowning class, who didn’t mix with the Indians, but used the language to mark Peruvian (non-Spaniard) identity.

Other pre-conquest languages also survived the demographic crash brought on by the Europeans, and it looks like some will be around for awhile. But most are gone, and more will be going soon. So a few words of a lost language found make this particular unknown Peruvian language the smallest footnote to all the other languages and peoples now lost to memory, lost to smallpox and gunpowder.

Check out Empires of the World, by Nicholas Ostler, for more great language history.

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