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Language and the Ancient History of a New World

Valeria López FadulProvost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

There was once in Mexico City a painter named Baltasar de Echave. It was a time (the early seventeenth century) when the city’s Basque community was thriving. Echave, a man of distinction, grew increasingly concerned with what he believed to be the demise of the Basque language. The New World and its promises of gold and never-ending wealth lured many young people into perpetual exile from their ancestral homelands in the Iberian Peninsula, causing them to abandon their ancient estates. When these men and women reached the Indies their descendants adopted Castilian for convenience and abandoned Basque. In the same way that the disappearance of the Taínos of Hispaniola brought about a formal end to their spoken tongues, Echave feared that Basque too would fade away.[i]

The languages of the Caribbean were declining, their only vestiges the islands’ place names. But the situation of Basque could still be reversed. This compelled Echave to publish a treatise entitled the Discursos de la antigüedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada in 1607In it he celebrated his language’s nobility and expressive qualities.

Above all, however, Echave’s treatise stressed the antiquity of Basque. Like many other early modern thinkers, Echave believed that Basque had been the primordial and most widespread tongue of Spain and that it held a special place amongst the languages of mankind, including those spoken in the Americas. Furthermore, Echave trusted that the rapidly changing linguistic situation of the Indies could illuminate many of the forces that had acted upon Basque before histories were recorded. It could help show how this once general tongue was now spoken only by a few.

In other words, an understanding of the history and development of ancient indigenous societies like those of Mesoamerica or the Andes region together with the many demographic, political, economic, and environmental transformations brought about by one hundred years of Spanish rule could serve scholars like Echave “as examples and live portraits of what it was once like in the Old World.” Language and its transformations represented a way to stream back to the unrecorded past, to gain insight into the experiences of previous generations, to learn about people’s origins and the histories of the regions they inhabited. Language was an archive of knowledge.

The early modern Hispanic territories, like all pre-modern societies, were multilingual. The Spanish king viewed this polyglossia as a necessary corollary of ruling over the wide array of lands, climates, and natures that made up his vast composite realms. Writers of all genres were invested in studying languages and considered the knowledge that words contained as central to resolving a great variety of questions. Etymology, or the study of names, had the capacity to reveal great amounts of information about the objects that words signified and could be approached in diverse ways. These ranged from the exegetical to the mystical, to the historical, to the philosophical. Place names contained traces of their founders. The names of plants and animals revealed traces of those who had named them. The words used to designate objects and rituals betrayed clues about their purposes and functions.

Pages upon pages of etymological discussions abound in the writings of the first chroniclers of the Indies. Throughout the course of my research on the philosophy of language in early Latin America I came to appreciate the significance of these extensive linguistic digressions. They offer a window into the ways in which native authorities explained the foundation of their towns, their genealogies, and the order of the flora and fauna that surrounded them.

The island of Hispaniola, only recently known by its Hispanic appellation, was actually, and more meaningfully, called Haití. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457–1526), like most sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Indies, began his history of the Caribbean by presenting the etymology of the words that the natives used to designate their homeland. He distinguished between their ancient language and their current one and attempted to explain the reasoning behind the toponyms. The primitive inhabitants of those islands had given first the name of Quizqueia and then Haití to Hispaniola. These denominations, he warned, “were not the children of fickleness, but of the meaning that they had.” Quizqueia is “a big thing that does not have an equal.” This word signified “vastness, universe, everything.” Martire compared this name to the word Pan (all) that the Greeks used to refer to their islands, since, like the Caribbean Indians, they believed that their “magnitude was the whole orb, and that the sun does not warm anything else [but theirs] and the neighboring islands.”

Haití was equally expressive. It signified, in the ancient language of the islanders, roughness. The natives of Haití applied the designation to the whole territory, through metonymy. In many parts of Haití “expanses of steep mounts can be found, thick and terrifying jungles, and fearful and dark valleys given the altitude of its mounts, and in other parts it is very pleasant.” In their use of metonymy, Martire reflected that the Indians resembled the poets that sometimes referred to all of Italy as Lazio (Latium), which was formally the name of one central region. Quizqueia contained clues as to the native’s worldview and Haití information about the physical landscape of the island.[ii]

Martire’s intellectual rival Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557) used the study of names to convey his authoritative eyewitness status when describing countless plants and animals previously unknown to Europeans. The iguanas that lived throughout the islands and on the mainland were not, as Martire had claimed, similar to the crocodiles of the Egyptian Nile. These new world “dragons” were much smaller than those creatures. It was unclear to Oviedo whether they were aquatic or terrestrial and whether they could be consumed during Lent. That was best for each to decide.

Despite his uncertainties, Oviedo could attest to their size, since he had seen many of them and even kept a few in his home. The “yuana,” he explained meticulously, “is pronounced and after a short interval u and then the three subsequent letters ana are uttered together, and in this way in the whole name [one] makes two stops in the manner in which it has been described.”[iii] Oviedo went to great pains to replicate the sounds of the animal’s native name.

When Echave published his book 50 years after the death of Oviedo, his friend Fernándo de Ojeda composed a short prologue to exalt the treatise’s accomplishments.  Thinking about the linguistic change that had ensued since the arrival of the first Spaniards as a consequence of conquest and population demise, Ojeda challenged the notion that the spread of empire is always accompanied by the complete linguistic assimilation of those defeated. “Even though it is true,” Ojeda conceded, “that, as it has always been said, conquerors and their languages consume the speeches of vanquished peoples: This does not apply to the names of provinces, mountains, rivers, and springs, even if they are a bit altered, as we experience in the infinite provinces of these Indies, which still conserve with little variation its ancient names, because even though we renamed many of them in the Spanish fashion: these have been forgotten or have fallen out of use altogether and the old names of the Indians prevail, even after all of them have died-out in some parts.” Ojeda presented the case of the Caribbean islands and other regions in the mainland, like “Cuba, which the Spaniards named in the beginning Fernandina,” and also “in HabanaBayamoJamayca, Yucatan, ChapultepecCampeche, Mexico, Mechuacan, Tezcuco, Tlaxcala and Cholula, which are all Indian words.”[iv] The omnipresence of long-winded and excruciatingly detailed etymological discussions, despite seeming fantastical and naive to a modern reader, reveals just how central they were to the early modern scholar in ascertaining and presenting to a distant audience reliable and authoritative local knowledge.

 Plantin Press, 1598). Original in the Jonh Carter Brown Library at Brown University.Detail from Abraham Ortelius’ map of Cuba and surrounding islands showing the names Hispaniola and “Ayti.” Abraham Ortelius, “Hispaniolae, Cubae, aliarumque insularum circumiacientium, delineatio,” Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Plantin Press, 1598). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


Detail from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias. 1a. parte (Sevilla: En la emprenta de Juana Cromberg, 1535). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



[i] Baltasar de Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada compuestos por Balthasar de Echave, natural de la Villa de Çumaya en la Provincia de Guipuzcoa, y vezino de Mexico.(Mexico : Henrrico Martínez, 1607), 83r.-84v.

[ii] Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, Décadas del Nuevo Mundo, trans. by Edmundo O’Gorman (México: J. Porrúa, 1964), 2 vols., Decade III, Book VII, p. 351.

[iii] Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo, Historia General de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano (Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851), Book XII, Cap. VII, pp. 392-396, p. 393.

[iv]  Fray Hernando de Ojeda, “ Fray Hernando de Ojeda de la orden de Santo Domingo a su amigo, Balthasar de Echave en loor de esta obra,” in Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

The Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen: Haiti’s Language Receives New Prominence

Mollie McFee, PhD Candidate, Comparative Literature

When I began taking Haitian Creole[1] in my second year of graduate school at the University of Chicago, one of the first proverbs I learned was “Pale franse pa di lespri.” The language is rich in word play exemplified by its proverbs, pithy encapsulations of social truths used to tease, admonish, or celebrate the listener. This particular phrase condenses Haiti’s social and political history into a curt utterance. It means, “Speaking French doesn’t make you smart.” Ever since Haiti’s formal independence from France in 1805, French has been the dominant language of the government, business, and the intellectual elite. However, most linguists estimate that only 5–10% of Haitians speak fluent French. Haitian Creole, on the other hand, is spoken and understood by all Haitians. The proverb serves as a reminder that though French has served as a gatekeeper to social mobility in Haiti, the language itself is only a system of symbols. True intelligence is in the content. To me, the proverb exemplifies Haiti’s remarkable history. When Haiti’s French colonizers failed to live up to the revolutionary ideals of equality by ensuring the freedom of slaves in its colony, the Haitian revolutionaries fought for those radical ideals despite a lack of resources or a trained army. I always interpreted the proverb as a reminder that the marginalized can outwit and outfight the elite, and that words are meaningless without action.

The Haitian army’s victory over its French colonizer did not end French culture’s dominant role in Haitian life. Despite the fact that only the very privileged and educated few spoke French, government affairs and services were conducted in the language of the former colonizer. The effects of this linguistic divide are staggering. Haitian children have been expected to learn in a foreign tongue, making education an enormous challenge. Adults, too, have not had access to politicians’ speeches, court proceedings, or virtually any of the fundamental tools for participation in democratic life. Over the past forty years the Haitian government has passed significant legislation addressing this problem. In 1979, the Reform Bernard required schools to provide students with education in Haitian Creole. In 1987, after the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was removed from power in a popular revolution, the country approved a new constitution that, for the first time in Haitian history, declared Haitian Creole one of the country’s two official languages (the second being French).

Even these major policy decisions have not significantly advanced the role of Haitian Creole in public life. Recently, the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (AKA), or the Haitian Creole Academy, was formed to take on the mantle of remedying the immediate problems and deep social history of Haiti’s linguistic divide. My current research centers on the efforts of this institution. When the 1987 constitution declared Haitian Creole one of the country’s official languages, it also called for the creation of an Academy to ensure “li bay lang Kreyòl la jarèt pou li fikse epi pou li ba li tout mwayen lasyans pou li devlope nòmal.” [it supports the Haitian language by codifying it and giving it all manner of scientific support so that it might become standardized.][2] The Haitian parliament and president approved legislation to establish the AKA in 2014. The AKA nominally resembles the French language academy, the Académie Française (AF), but the AKA’s mission and social context differs significantly from this French antecedent. Founded in 1635, the AF has been the official arbiter of the French language. The AF symbolically recognizes the most refined use of the French language by publishing a well-respected dictionary and awarding literary prizes. In its early days, the AF helped standardize French and establish its status in public life as Latin became increasingly less dominant. When I first learned of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen’s existence, I was shocked that Haiti had implemented this eminently staid model from its former colonizer. Didn’t Haitian Creole embody the spirit of the maroon, the escaped slave that carved out new forms of life on the margins to resist European hegemony? How was it that a language I associated with creativity, play, and subversive resistance of authority was now to be subject to an official and regulating body?

As I dove into my research on the extremely young organization, its unique role in Haitian society became clearer to me. While the AF served to reinforce the French government’s power at home and abroad by establishing linguistic and literary prestige, the AKA endeavors to use language as a tool to ensure that the Haitian state serves its people. Regulating the language is instrumental to this process. Establishing rules that settle a diversity of linguistic practices, for instance the notation of abbreviated words, makes it easier for people to write, read, and teach in Haitian Creole. The AKA also works in collaboration with the government to ensure that laws on the books for decades like the Reform Bernard actually get carried out. The AKA currently works with the Ministry of Education and Professional Development (MENFP) to promote pedagogical training for educators to teach in Haitian Creole. Rather than focusing on the forms that symbolize intelligence, like literary prizes, the AKA turned its attention to cultivating the minds of Haitians in their native language, reinforcing what all Haitians know: Pale franse pa di lespri.


The Akademi's official logo is an image of the Nèg Mawon with a pen in his hand, signifiying the Akademi's commitment to cultivating cultural practices that will preserve Haiti's history and empower its people.

The Akademi’s official logo is an image of the Nèg Mawon with a pen in his hand, signifiying the Akademi’s commitment to cultivating cultural practices that will preserve Haiti’s history and empower its people.

 recent photograph of the Akademi's members, including prominent linguists, social activists, and cultural figures.

A recent photograph of the Akademi’s members, including prominent linguists, social activists, and cultural figures.


(1) I have chosen to write Haitian Creole in its English orthography here. I frequently see “Creole” written in its Haitian orthography (Kreyòl), which to me is akin to referring to French as français in an English language text. Some linguists argue that Haitian Creole should simply be called Haitian, as it is the language of Haiti.

(2) Atik 213, Konstitisyon Repiblik Ayiti 1987.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.