Monthly Archives: March 2021

Stages of Language Attrition

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 171-172:

So that, then, is what I eventually discovered became of the children I spent so much time with in the mid-1980s. All of them acquired some Tayap, and a few of them came to be passive active bilinguals, possessing good competence in Tayap but never putting it to any use. Perhaps as they get older, speakers like Mbonika and Orbmes will begin to use their Tayap in the village. But I predict that if they do so, they’ll use it mostly to sourly chastise people younger than themselves for not speaking Tayap. And by then, it will be too late.

As I looked closely at young people’s Tayap, I saw how the very idea of language death is misguided. A language never just dies; it isn’t here one minute and gone the next. Instead, languages dissolve; they waste away. Looking at young people’s Tayap is like watching ink fade or flesh wither: the language loses its suppleness and becomes etiolated and spare. It shrivels from blowzy fecundity to become a kind of stiff, desiccated husk.

In young people’s Tayap, the first thing to go is the ability to construct intricate synthetic verbs like “She intends to carry him down on her shoulders.” Next to disappear are the complicated ways of linking verbs and forming relative clauses and subordinate clauses (so no “the pig that I speared yesterday” or “we were eating when you came”). Verbs of motion—except “come” and “go”—melt away too.

As speakers get younger in age and less competent in their command of the language, Tayap’s range of tenses disappears, and gender agreement gets wonky. The youngest and least fluent speakers lose the ability to inflect any verbs for their correct subjects and objects; they collapse all classes of verbs to a single paradigm, and they replace Tayap vocabulary with Tok Pisin words.

In their language, the mighty tree that once was Tayap has been whittled down to a skinny toothpick.

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Hidden Language Skills

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 166-168:

Not only were young villagers eager to narrate; it turned out that all but the very youngest of them were also able to narrate in Tayap. Many of the narratives were short, and most of them were scaffolded by the narrator’s relatives and friends, who sat on the floor with them and helped the teller remember what things were called and figure out how verbs were inflected. But what emerged in the narrative sessions was that all young people in the village over age eighteen have some active competence in the vernacular, and some of them have excellent active competence—even though they never use it.

Several of the young villagers in their mid- to late twenties were highly proficient storytellers. They spoke relatively unhesitatingly, they had a broad vocabulary, they used a variety of tenses and verbs of motion (which are often irregular in Tayap and very tricky to inflect correctly) in the stories they told, and they also commanded other features of the grammar that showed unexpected mastery of Tayap. The truly curious thing about the speakers is that outside of these sessions, they never displayed their command of the language. I once asked Membo, a twenty-six-year-old woman, what she thought about her twenty-five-year-old husband Ormbes’s competence in Tayap. Membo laughed dismissively. “Oh, he messes it all up,” she told me, “He doesn’t speak Tayap.”

I later asked Ormbes to tell me a story in Tayap. He narrated an almost flawless tale of how he and his brother went hunting in the rainforest and speared a pig. Ormbes turned out to be one of the most fluent younger speakers in the village. That his wife, who not only had been married to him for ten years but also had grown up with him and had known him all her life, was convinced that her husband didn’t speak Tayap, was remarkable—and telling.

I scoured the linguistic literature for a label to name people like Ormbes, and I came up empty. Ormbes isn’t what’s known as a passive bilingual because he is capable of relatively advanced language production. Nor is someone like Ormbes quite the same as what linguists who work with endangered languages call a semi-speaker. Semi-speakers are speakers of a dying language who have perfect passive competence and perfect communicative competence in that language. In other words, they understand everything that fluent speakers say to them, and they respond in culturally appropriate ways, using short bursts of the language. Semi-speakers’ ability to get jokes, interject comments, and actively participate in conversations by contributing a few well-turned utterances here and there is deceptive, and it often masks the fact that they can’t actually say very much. Linguists who work with endangered languages report cases in which their work with semi-speakers has caused extreme embarrassment to a whole community. The linguists have given such speakers language proficiency tests because they assumed that they were fluent speakers (having seen them conversing with fluent speakers, and because fluent speakers identified them as fluent speakers). When confronted with a language test, though—and to everybody’s dismay—the people who everyone thought were fluent, in reality, could barely manage to compose a single grammatically correct sentence on their own.

Young people in Gapun like Ormbes aren’t semi-speakers partly because they can construct grammatically correct sentences, and also because they don’t ever actually converse in Tayap. They actively participate in conversations when older speakers speak Tayap, but their own contributions are always in Tok Pisin. With the exception of lexical items and a few formulaic phrases like “Give me betel nut,” they never use Tayap at all.

Rather than calling the young people in Gapun who can narrate stories in Tayap passive bilinguals or semi-speakers, I’ve taken to calling them “passive active bilinguals.” The convolutedness of that label seems fitting to describe speakers who possesses sufficient grammatical and communicative competence in their second language to use that language, but who never actually do use it because social and cultural factors make it unnecessary or undesirable to do so.

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The First Casualty of Tok Pisin

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 36-38:

The first casualty of the villagers’ increased acquisition of Tok Pisin was their competence in other local languages. Before the arrival of Tok Pisin, Gapuners were a highly multilingual people. No one in the surrounding villages bothered to learn their little language—a situation that suited Gapuners just fine since it meant that they could employ Tayap as a secret code that nobody else understood.

To communicate with people from other villages, men and women in Gapun learned the local vernacular languages that those people spoke. During my first long stay in the village in the 1980s, I listened to old people who had grown up before the Second World War confidently speaking two other local languages that were unrelated to Tayap or to each other, and I also heard those old people responding to one or two other languages, which they clearly understood even if they couldn’t speak them.

In the generation born after the war, when Tok Pisin “came up big,” competence in other village vernaculars plummeted. People no longer needed to learn local languages because, at that point, it was easier to communicate in Tok Pisin. Women lagged behind men, and they continued to learn other vernacular languages for another generation, largely because women in the area generally still did not speak Tok Pisin as easily as men did. By the 1970s, though, even Gapun women’s active competence in other vernaculars was eclipsed by Tok Pisin.

Once women started speaking Tok Pisin, they started directing it at their young children. This in itself didn’t necessarily mean very much. Unlike middle-class parents in places like northern Europe and the United States, adults in Gapun don’t spend a lot of time talking to small children. They don’t use language to try to teach their kids anything since they don’t believe that toddlers learn by being taught. And to try to converse with a baby is nonsensical since a baby can’t hold up its end of the conversation and talk back.

But when children, especially girls, start to get pressed into service to help mothers care for a new baby, mothers begin to give the kids orders. And those orders—to fetch firewood, to hand the baby whatever it is crying for, to climb up a tree to get betel nut—increasingly got formulated in Tok Pisin. Women started doing to their small children what men had been doing to boys and young men (and their wives) for decades—ordering them about in Tok Pisin. And indeed, the men who ordered their sons, nephews, and wives around in Tok Pisin learned the language themselves in situations where they had been ordered around in Tok Pisin by white overseers.

In language death, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. . . .

This, then, is how a language dies: in Gapun, Tok Pisin was incorporated into the villagers’ linguistic repertoire first at the expense of other village vernaculars, and, ultimately, at the expense of their own vernacular. There has been a steady reduction in the number of languages that villagers command, to the point where their impressive multilingualism has in the course of four generations been reduced to monolingualism. A people who used to command many languages now increasingly command only one. And that one is not their ancestral language, Tayap. It is, instead, Tok Pisin.

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How Tok Pisin Came to Gapun

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 31-33:

Tok Pisin entered Gapun in around 1916. A year or so before the outbreak of the First World War, word spread from the coast that white men were in the area searching for young men to work for them. These white men were German labor recruiters, and the men they recruited were to be shipped off to the copra plantations that the Germans had established along the Rai Coast of eastern New Guinea (at that time, it was German New Guinea) and on various distant islands. Two Gapun men, Ayarpa and Waiki, went to the coast to find those white men. They resisted the protests of their relatives, who believed that the white men wanted to lure them away from the village to kill them. The two men were itching for an adventure. They ignored their relatives, found the recruiters, and left with them.

Ayarpa and Waiki joined the scores of men from various parts of the mainland who were taken to a copra plantation on Kokopo near the German settlement of Rabaul, on the faraway island of Neu-Pommern (“New Pomerania”). They remained on this plantation for at least three years, and they apparently witnessed the Australian occupation of Germany’s New Guinea territories at the outbreak of World War I (at which time “New Pomerania” was imperiously changed to “New Britain”). My language teacher in Gapun, old Raya, recalled Ayarpa—who was Raya’s father—describing how the inglis (that is, the Australians) rounded up the Germans and “put them into big crates. They put them all inside the crates, nailed them shut, and sent them back to their country.”

Sometime after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea in 1914, Ayarpa and Waiki came home. The stories that survive them recount how they arrived triumphantly in the village, carrying with them the fruits of their labor. Each man had a small wooden patrol box filled with “cargo”: steel knives, machetes, axes, bolts of factory-made cloth, European tobacco, saucer-sized ceramic plates that looked like seashells. (Villagers throughout New Guinea regarded such flat seashells as valuable items, and knowing that, the Germans mass-produced counterfeit ones in white ceramic to pay their laborers.) But just as impressive and even longer lasting than the goods they brought with them were the stories they told about working on the plantation. And most impressive of all was the new language the men had acquired while working for the white men.

As most people in New Guinea did at the time, Ayarpa and Waiki assumed that Tok Pisin was the language of white men. And like the steel axes and fake seashells that entered the village’s redistributive networks, so did the white men’s language: Ayarpa and Waiki immediately set about sharing the language with their peers.

A few years after Ayarpa and Waiki returned to Gapun, a group of Australian labor recruiters suddenly appeared in the village. This was the first time any white person had actually come to the village, and panic ensued. Most of the terrified villagers fled into the rainforest. Only Ayarpa, Waiki, and a few old people who were too frail to run fast enough to escape were left. Seeing the village thus deserted, the Australians resorted to what was presumably a time-tested technique of persuasion: they gathered together the old people who remained and prevented them from leaving, and then they waited until their anxious cries brought back a few young men. At that point, Ayarpa and Waiki did the recruiters’ work for them: they told the men that if they went off with the white men, they would go to where the two of them had gone, and they would learn Tok Pisin. “We’ve taught you some of the white man’s language,” they are said to have told the men, “but you don’t know it well. If you go away to the plantation, you’ll learn it well.”

Five men left with the recruiters.

And so a pattern of learning Tok Pisin became established. Young men acquired a basic knowledge of the language in the village. They then went off to work as contracted laborers to learn Tok Pisin “well.” Later, when they returned to the village, they taught the language to the young men.

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On Language Use in Fieldwork

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. ix-x:

Long gone are the magisterial days of departed anthropologists like Margaret Mead, whose attitude about the people she worked with was neatly summed up in an article she published in 1939 in the professional journal American Anthropologist. Mead wrote in response to one of her colleague’s claims that for anthropological work to be believable, anthropologists needed to learn the languages spoken by the people among whom they did fieldwork. Margaret Mead thought that earnest counsel like that was nonsense. She waved it away like an irritating housefly. All the fuss about learning native languages was intimidating to anthropology students and just plain wrongheaded. It wasn’t necessary. To do their job, Mead insisted, anthropologists don’t need to “know” a language. They just need to “use” a language. And to “use” a language requires only three things.

First of all, you need to be able to ask questions in order to “get an answer with the smallest amount of dickering.” (What you were supposed to make of those answers if you didn’t speak the language in which they were delivered was not something that Mead seemingly bothered herself about.)

The second thing Mead thought that an anthropologist needed to use a language for is to establish rapport (“Especially in the houses of strangers, where one wishes the maximum non-interference with one’s note taking and photography”).

The final thing you need to use a language to do—this is my favorite—is to give instructions. Invoking an era when natives knew their place and didn’t dare mess with bossy anthropologists, Mead offered this crisp advice: “If the ethnologist cannot give quick and accurate instructions to his native servants, informants and assistants, cannot tell them to find the short lens for the Leica, its position accurately described, to put the tripod down-sun from the place where the ceremony is to take place, to get a fresh razor blade and the potassium permanganate crystals and bring them quickly in case of snake bite [wouldn’t you love to know how she barked that in Samoan?], to boil and filter the water which is to be used for mixing a developer,—he will waste an enormous amount of time and energy doing mechanical tasks which he could have delegated if his tongue had been just a little bit better schooled.”

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People Differing Only by Language

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 26-28:

As far back as anyone in Gapun has been able to remember, though, Tayap has never had more than, at most, about 150 speakers: the entire population of Tayap speakers, when the language was at its peak, would have fit into a single New York City subway car. Tiny as that count is, such a small language was not unusual for Papua New Guinea. Most languages spoken in the country have fewer than three thousand speakers. And linguists estimate that about 35 percent of the languages (which means about 350 of them) have never had more than about five hundred speakers.

Contrary to received wisdom, and common sense, this constellation of tiny languages was not the result of isolation; it didn’t arise because villages were separated from one another by mountain barriers or impenetrable jungle walls. Quite the opposite: throughout Papua New Guinea, the areas that have the highest degree of linguistic diversity (that is, the most languages) are the ones where people can get around relatively easily, by paddling a canoe along rivers and creeks, for example. The areas where travel is more difficult, for example in the mountains that run like a jagged spine across the center of the country, is where the largest languages are found (the biggest being a language called Enga, with over two hundred thousand speakers).

The conclusion that linguists have drawn from this counterintuitive distribution of languages is that people in Papua New Guinea have used language as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. Whereas other people throughout the world have come to use religion or food habits or clothing styles to distinguish themselves as a specific group of people in relation to outsiders, Papua New Guineans came to achieve similar results through language. People wanted to be different from their neighbors, and the way they made themselves different was to diverge linguistically.

Large swathes of neighboring groups throughout the mainland share similar traditional beliefs about what happens after one dies; they think related things about sorcery, initiation rituals, and ancestor worship; they have roughly similar myths about how they all originated; and before white colonists started coming to the country in the mid-1800s, they all dressed fairly similarly (and they all do still dress similarly, given the severely limited variety of manufactured clothing available to them today—mostly T-shirts and cloth shorts for men, and for women, baggy, Mother Hubbard–style “meri blouses” introduced by missionaries to promote modesty and cover up brazenly exposed breasts). Neighboring peoples hunt the same pigs and cassowaries that inhabit the rainforest; and they all eat sago, or taro or sweet potato—whichever of those staples their land is capable of growing.

In terms of the languages they speak, though, Papua New Guineans are very different from one another.

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Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Dead Reckoning and Portolan Charts

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 77-79:

In the sixteenth century, the basic method of ocean navigation was “dead reckoning.” Pilots steered ships from an origination point or “fix” to a new position by estimating the direction and distance traveled. Any point on the globe could be specified by means of only direction and distance. To keep track of direction, navigators used a thirty-two-point magnetic compass. To judge the distance traveled, pilots estimated the speed of the ship by simply looking at the passing bubbles on the sea. During the Age of Discovery this disarmingly simple system was used with accuracy to negotiate even long ocean passages. Dead-reckoning navigation, for instance, enabled Columbus to sail four times from Spain to the Caribbean and back.

Dead-reckoning navigation, in turn, was made possible by a new type of chart known as a portolan. Invented in the thirteenth century, the portolan chart caused a nautical revolution, first in the Mediterranean and later in the Atlantic. Unlike medieval mappaemundi with their fanciful renderings of land masses and distances, portolan charts are incredibly accurate. One can gain a sense of their accuracy by comparing conventional maps of the sixteenth century, which often exaggerate the length of the Mediterranean by nearly twenty degrees (a problem traceable to Ptolemy), with portolan charts, for which the comparable error seldom exceeds one degree.

Intended for real, working seamen, portolan charts include only relevant geographic details like coastlines, islands, rivers, and mountains. But their most visually striking and useful feature is the series of lines bisecting the charts. These lines were the lifeblood of sixteenth-century navigators. Each one represents what pilots called a rutter (derrotero in Spanish) or technically a rhumb line—a path defined by a fixed compass direction. These were the lines that pilots strove to follow as they steered the ships through the oceans. Portolan charts thus gave pilots information about the distance between point A and point B, the precise direction that they needed to follow, and indications about any prominent geographic features along the way; all they needed to know, nothing more and nothing less. Crucially, portolan charts do not depend on latitudes or longitudes. Indeed, virtually no portolan charts contained such measurements prior to 1500. Moreover, they do not require the use of declination tables or any additional conversions or calculations, as these charts were drawn on the basis of the magnetic, rather than the true, north. Simply by maintaining a course with a magnetic compass and keeping track of the distance traveled on a portolan chart, an illiterate pilot—and roughly one out of four pilots in the sixteenth century was still unable to write his own name—could steer an expedition skillfully and safely to its destination.

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Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

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