Category Archives: scholarship

World War I Postwar Revisionism

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 181-228:

In today’s Britain, there is a widespread belief that the war was so horrendous that the merits of the rival belligerents’ causes scarcely matter – the Blackadder take on history, if you like. This seems mistaken, even if one does not entirely share Cicero’s view that the causes of events are more important than the events themselves. That wise historian Kenneth O. Morgan, neither a conservative nor a revisionist, delivered a 1996 lecture about the cultural legacy of the twentieth century’s two global disasters, in which he argued that ‘the history of the First World War was hijacked in the 1920s by the critics’. Foremost among these was Maynard Keynes, an impassioned German sympathiser who castigated the supposed injustice and folly of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, without offering a moment’s speculation about what sort of peace Europe would have had if a victorious Kaiserreich and its allies had been making it. The contrast is striking, and wildly overdone, between the revulsion of the British people following World War I, and their triumphalism after 1945. I am among those who reject the notion that the conflict of 1914–18 belonged to a different moral order from that of 1939–45. If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory.

The seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey wrote: ‘About 1647, I went to see Parson Stump out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my childhood; but by that time they were lost and disperst; his sons were gunners and souldiers, and scoured their gunnes with them.’ All historians face such disappointments, but the contrary phenomenon also afflicts students of 1914: there is an embarrassment of material in many languages, and much of it is suspect or downright corrupt. Almost all the leading actors in varying degree falsified the record about their own roles; much archival material was destroyed, not merely by carelessness but often because it was deemed injurious to the reputations of nations or individuals. From 1919 onwards Germany’s leaders, in pursuit of political advantage, strove to shape a record that might exonerate their country from war guilt, systematically eliminating embarrassing evidence. Some Serbs, Russians and Frenchmen did likewise.

Moreover, because so many statesmen and soldiers changed their minds several times during the years preceding 1914, their public and private words can be deployed to support a wide range of alternative judgements about their convictions and intentions. An academic once described oceanography as ‘a creative activity undertaken by individuals who are … gratifying their own curiosity. They are trying to find meaningful patterns in the research data, their own as well as other people’s, and far more frequently than one might suppose, the interpretation is frankly speculative.’ The same is true about the study of history in general, and that of 1914 in particular.

Scholarly argument about responsibility for the war has raged through decades and several distinct phases. A view gained acceptance in the 1920s and thereafter, influenced by a widespread belief that the 1919 Versailles Treaty imposed unduly harsh terms upon Germany, that all the European powers shared blame. Then Luigi Albertini’s seminal work The Origins of the War of 1914 appeared in Italy in 1942 and in Britain in 1953, laying the foundations for many subsequent studies, especially in its emphasis on German responsibility. In 1967 Fritz Fischer published another ground-breaking book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, arguing that the Kaiserreich must bear the burden of guilt, because documentary evidence showed the country’s leadership bent upon launching a European war before Russia’s accelerating development and armament precipitated a seismic shift in strategic advantage.

At first, Fischer’s compatriots responded with outrage. They were members of the generation which reluctantly accepted a necessity to shoulder responsibility for the Second World War; now, here was Fischer insisting that his own nation should also bear the guilt for the First. It was too much, and his academic brethren fell upon him. The bitterness of Germany’s ‘Fischer controversy’ has never been matched by any comparable historical debate in Britain or the United States. When the dust settled, however, a remarkable consensus emerged that, with nuanced reservations, Fischer was right.

But in the past three decades, different aspects of his thesis have been energetically challenged by writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the most impressive contributions was that of Georges-Henri Soutou, in his 1989 work L’Or et le sang. Soutou did not address the causes of the conflict, but instead the rival war aims of the allies and the Central Powers, convincingly showing that rather than entering the conflict with a coherent plan for world domination, the Germans made up their objectives as they went along. Some other historians have ploughed more contentious furrows. Sean McMeekin wrote in 2011: ‘The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.’ Samuel Williamson told a March 2012 seminar at Washington’s Wilson Center that the theory of explicit German guilt is no longer tenable. Niall Ferguson places a heavy responsibility on British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey. Christopher Clark argues that Austria was entitled to exact military retribution for the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand upon Serbia, which was effectively a rogue state. Meanwhile John Rohl, magisterial historian of the Kaiser and his court, remains unwavering in his view that there was ‘crucial evidence of intentionality on Germany’s part’.

No matter – for the moment – which of these theses seems convincing or otherwise: suffice it to say there is no danger that controversy about 1914 will ever be stilled. Many alternative interpretations are possible, and all are speculative. The early twenty-first century has produced a plethora of fresh theories and imaginative reassessments of the July crisis, but remarkably little relevant and persuasive new documentary material. There is not and never will be a ‘definitive’ interpretation of the coming of war: each writer can only offer a personal view.

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Filed under Europe, nationalism, scholarship, war

Lankov on the Soviet-run Popular Revolution in NK

The Sino-NK blog (“Northeast Asia with a China-North Korea Focus”) has an interesting column with the provocative title, A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without. Here’s Prof. Lankov’s conclusion.

The Soviet involvement with the new regime in Pyongyang was considerable. Soviet control far exceeded America’s rather moderate influence in the South. However, the vast majority of Koreans did not know this. One cannot help but wonder, then: had the extent of Soviet control been fully known in the late 1940s, would such a revelation have had a decisive impact on popular attitudes towards Pyongyang’s regime? It is, after all, difficult to imagine that in 1946 North Korean farmers would have rejected free land had they known that this land had been bestowed upon them by the secretive Soviet viceroy and not by this young, plump guerrilla field commander named Kim Il-sung.

It seems that Korean historians are caught in a false dichotomy when they argue about whether the 1945-50 period was a time of foreign occupation or popular revolution. In fact, it was both. Irrespective of the Soviet advisors, who discreetly but firmly controlled developments, the major ideas resonated well with the majority of North Korean people and provided the language of the revolution. The Kim Il-sung regime of the late 1940s might have been a dependent or even a puppet one, but this does not necessarily mean that it was unpopular. Of course, its popularity was to a large extent based on naive expectations and illusions, but it was quite real nonetheless.

via The Marmot’s Hole

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Filed under democracy, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, scholarship, U.S., USSR

Wordcatcher Tales: xoc, anagogy

From: Breaking the Maya Code, rev. ed., by Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 141 (third edition now available on Kindle):

Here were three glyphs … that the leading anti-phoneticist of his day [Eric Thompson] was reading in the Yucatec Maya tongue. That begins to sound subversive! Even further, back in 1944 he had shown that the pair of fish fins, or at times a pair of fishes, which flanked the Month-patron head in the great glyph which always introduces an Initial Series date on a Classic monument, is a rebus sign: the fish is a shark, xoc in Maya (Tom Jones has recently proved that xoc is the origin of the English word “shark”). And xoc also means “to count” in Maya.

These decipherments were all major advances, but Thompson failed to follow them up. Why? The answer is that Thompson was a captive of that same mindset that had led in the first century before Christ to the absurd interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Diodorus Siculus, to the equally absurd fourth-century AD Neoplatonist nonsense of Horapollon, and to the sixteenth-century fantasies of Athanasius Kircher. Eric had ignored the lesson of Champollion.

In a chapter entitled “Glances Backward and a Look Ahead,” Thompson sums up his views on Maya hieroglyphic writing. “The glyphs are anagogical,” he says. Now Webster defines anagogy as the “interpretation of a word, passage, or text (as of Scripture or poetry) that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral senses a fourth and ultimate spiritual and mystical sense.”

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Filed under Britain, language, Mexico, scholarship, U.S.

Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One’s Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)

Though Villagutierre’s Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre’s style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: “… y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza…” Villagutierre, in the same connection says: “… que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ….” This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo’s book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.

One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

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Filed under language, Mexico, publishing, scholarship, U.S.

Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614”! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.


Filed under art, Japan, language, Mexico, migration, Philippines, scholarship, science, Spain

Columbus as Portuguese Wannabe

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 348-399:

Columbus had profound Portuguese connections. Although he was Genoese and the sponsor of his voyages across the Atlantic was Queen Isabella of Castile, Columbus spent much of his life from the 1470s on in Portugal. In the late 1470s he married the daughter of a Portuguese Atlantic colonist, and he repeatedly sought royal Portuguese patronage before and after first approaching the Castilian monarch….

This context is so important because it is by looking at Portugal before and during Columbus’s years there that one can see the degree to which the transplanted Genoese navigator had neither a a unique plan nor a unique vision nor a unique pattern of previous experience. Many others created and contributed to the expansion process of which Columbus became a part. Beginning 200 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, southern European shipping broke out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. The Vivaldi brothers, most notably, set off from Genoa in 1291 on what turned out to be a one-way voyage west across the Atlantic. Then, in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries a new zone of navigation was created that was bordered by the Azores in the north, the Canary Islands in the south, and the Iberian-African coasts in the east.

Finally, from the 1420s on, a further stretch of exploration and navigation into the mid- and west Atlantic was created and charted. In the 1450s and 1460s, Flores, Corvo, the Cape Verde Islands, and the islands of the Gulf of Guinea were explored. The Madeiras and Canaries were settled and turned into sugar-plantation colonies and by 1478 the former was the largest sugar producer in the Western world. Maps of the time show how important and extensive was the discovery of Atlantic space; speculation about the lands and features of the ocean was the most noteworthy feature of fifteenth-century cartography.

Although men from Italian city-states were involved from the start, and Castilians increasingly participated in the process (especially, from the late-fourteenth century on, in hostile competition for control of the Canaries), it was Portugal that dominated this expansion. Italian navigators were systematically and most effectively co-opted by the Portuguese monarchy (later joined by the Flemish), permitting the new Portuguese empire to control Atlantic settlement (except for the Canaries) and the agenda of expansion….

Columbus tried to become part of this process with growing desperation in the 1480s and 1490s. He failed for so long because he lacked the connections and persuasive ideas of other navigators. Even after he succeeded in crossing the Atlantic and returning, the extent of his success was questioned and questionable within the context of the time. The islands he had found (in the Caribbean) fell within the zone assigned to the Portuguese by the 1486 papal bull. And although in 1494 the papacy brokered a Portuguese-Castilian treaty that redefined these zones, it became increasingly apparent during the 1490s that Columbus had not found the much-sought sea route to the East Indies—but had been lying about it to Queen Isabella. Then, in 1499, Vasco da Gama returned from his successful voyage around the Cape and it became clear that the Portuguese had won the competition after all.

Columbus’s career was irreversibly damaged. His claim to have found islands off the coast of Asia, and thus the coveted sea route to that continent, rang hollow in the face of mounting evidence that these were new lands entirely. Columbus seemed to be lying for the sake of his contractual rewards. Perceiving the extent of his failure and his duplicity, the Castilian crown dispatched an agent to the Caribbean to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain in chains. Although he was later permitted to cross the Atlantic, he was forbidden to revisit the Caribbean and was stripped of the titles of Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies—titles he had fought to be included in his original contract and arguably the chief goal of his career. Meanwhile, those titles were conferred by the Portuguese crown upon da Gama.

The fact that it was Columbus’s voyages, not da Gama’s, that would lead to the changing of world history was not to the Genoese’s credit. His discoveries were an accidental geographical byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself. Furthermore, had Columbus not reached the Americas, any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade. Most obviously, the Portuguese Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the Brazilian coast in 1500, likewise arriving there in an attempt to reach Asia (by rounding the Cape).


Filed under Africa, Brazil, Caribbean, Latin America, migration, Portugal, scholarship, Spain, travel

Franciscans the First Modern Ethnographers?

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 511-524:

Cortés emerged in the sixteenth century as the most recognizable of God’s agents for several reasons. One was the impressive nature of the Mexica empire and the subsequent importance of central Mexico to the Spanish empire. Another was the rapid publication and wide circulation (despite royal attempts at censorship) of Cortés’s letters to the king, which argued unambiguously that God had directed the Conquest of Mexico as a favor to the Spanish monarchy. The blessed status of Cortés himself was heavily implied; in one letter he uses the Spanish term medio (medium or agent), to describe his providential role. A third was the supportive spin placed on Cortés and the Conquest by the Franciscans.

Friars of the Order of St. Francis were the first Spanish priests into the Mesoamerican regions that would become the colonies of New Spain. In competition with the Dominicans, to a lesser extent other orders, and later the secular clergy (priests who were not members of an order), the Franciscans remained central to the activities of the church throughout colonial Spanish America. In central Mexico, Yucatan, and other parts of New Spain, sixteenth-century Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and build a colonial church. The roles that natives themselves played in that process, and the writings generated as a result by both friars and natives, gave rise to an extraordinary body of literature that was foundational to the academic discipline of ethnography.

The Franciscans saw Cortés’s support of their entry into Mexico and their activities in the earliest colonial years as being crucial to their mission, and as a result contributed much to the formation of his legend.

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Filed under Latin America, Mexico, migration, publishing, religion, scholarship, Spain

Origins of the Conquistador Genre

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 443-474:

The Mexican historian Enrique Florescano has observed that the Conquest gave rise to “a new protagonist of historical action and narration: the conquistador” and with him “a new historical discourse” that featured “a new manner of seeing and representing the past.” The historical discourse of the conquistadors may have been new in the sense of its application to the Americas, but it was actually based on a genre of document developed by Iberians before they reached the New World [during the Reconquista]. This genre was the report that conquerors sent to the crown upon completion of their activities of exploration, conquest, and settlement. Such reports had a dual purpose. One purpose was to inform the monarch of events and newly acquired lands, especially if those lands contained the two elements most sought as the basis for colonization—settled native populations, and precious metals. The other purpose was to petition for rewards in the form of offices, titles, and pensions. Hence the Spanish name for the genre, probanza de mérito (proof of merit).

The very nature and purpose of probanzas obliged those who wrote them to promote their own deeds and downplay or ignore those of others—to eliminate process and pattern in favor or individual action and achievement. Most of Conquest mythology can be found in these reports—the Spaniards as superior beings blessed by divine providence, the invisibility of Africans and native allies, the Conquest’s rapid rush to completion, and above all the Conquest as the accomplishment of bold and self-sacrificing individuals.

Probanzas are also important because so many were written. Literally thousands sit in the great imperial archives in Seville, and still more are in Madrid, Mexico City, Lima, and elsewhere…. Most such reports were brief—a page or two—wooden, formulaic in style, given scant attention by royal officials, then shelved until their rediscovery by twentieth-century historians. Many, no doubt, have never been read. But an influential minority were widely read either through publication as conquest accounts, or by being worked into colonial-period histories. For example, the famous letters by Cortés to the king, which were in effect a series of probanzas, were published shortly after reaching Spain. They so efficiently promoted the Conquest as Cortés’s achievement, and sold so well in at least five languages, that the crown banned the cartas lest the conqueror’s cult status become a political threat. The letters continued to circulate, however, and later admirers traveled like pilgrims to Cortés’s residence in Spain. The Cortés cult was further stimulated by Gómara’s hagiography of 1552—that the crown attempted to suppress too.

There was plenty of precedent to the publication of probanza-like letters and to crown intervention in their distribution or suppression. Within months of Columbus’s return to Spain from his first Atlantic crossing, a “letter” putatively written by him but actually crafted by royal officials based on a document by Columbus was published in Spanish, Italian (prose and verse versions), and Latin. It promoted the “discovery” as a Spanish achievement that cast favorable light on the Spanish monarchs and on Columbus as their agent. Significantly, it also made the letter originally written by Columbus, who as a Genoese would have been less familiar with the Iberian genres, look more like a Spanish probanza.

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Filed under biography, Italy, Latin America, Mexico, migration, military, Portugal, publishing, scholarship, Spain

Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella’s Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile’s cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija’s behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop’s reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile’s cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.

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Filed under economics, education, language, literature, migration, religion, scholarship, Spain

Language Documentation Hiatus

My slow and erratic progress on documenting Numbami, the language I did fieldwork on in Papua New Guinea in 1976, suddenly gained traction on October 1, when I imported my old Numbami dictionary file into a new software package I had just been introduced to. Now dictionary work has taken precedence over blogging, photography, and other hobbies as I tediously clean up the many import errors and add many cross-references and reverse-entry keywords. After the cleanup, I’ll have a printable Numbami-English and English-Numbami lexicon and be ready to digitize the text, glosses, and translations of several wonderful narratives I transcribed (in pencil) 35 years ago.

Before I imported the dictionary data, I had begun to retranscribe one of my best narratives whose pencil transcription had gone missing many years ago. A couple years ago, a language documentation specialist at the University of Hawai‘i (my old alma mater) had converted my old cassette tapes to digital media (.WAV and .MP3 format), so I could use Transcriber to align the audio with the transcription.

While underemployed in 1991, I had first input all my manual Numbami wordlist cards into Shoebox. In 2006, a friend helped me convert the Shoebox database into SIL’s new and improved Toolbox. Now I have imported the Toolbox data into SIL’s latest language documentation software package, FLEx, and have begun cleaning and recoding it.

One of the best things I did during my fieldwork was to record and transcribe in the field a good range of narratives: two well-organized procedural texts about women’s work cooking food and about the communal work of processing sago palm starch; two personal tales about experiences being civilians on the front lines during World War Two; and a couple of traditional tales, including an origin myth that combines elements from both coastal and inland cultures. (I translated and blogged a passage from one of the war stories here.)

My host father (long deceased) was a retired schoolteacher and village kaunsil (elected representative to the local government council). He told me that a portion of the timber royalties from village land was allocated to help pay for the education of village youths, who had to leave the village even to attend elementary school. Timber royalties also helped pay for the small diesel vessel that carried people and goods back and forth along the mountainous coast, which lacked an overland highway.

It was not until the 1990s that a Tok Ples (Vernacular) Skul was established in the village to teach basic literacy in the local language, before children went away to elementary school, where Tok Pisin was the lingua franca. I made a tiny contribution to getting it started by sending enough linguistic materials on Numbami to show that it had a workable orthography, which was a prerequisite for any Tok Ples Skul. But my work on the language was otherwise aimed at other linguists, for whom I hope eventually (after I retire) to finish a reference grammar of the language.

But my priorities shifted over the past year from language description to language documentation, thanks to new technologies and new relationships. One factor was the new language documentation software mentioned above. The other was making new contacts via Facebook with well-educated grandchildren of my host father who have mastered English and Tok Pisin well, but know very little Numbami. They are my new target audience, not linguists and not people in the village who still speak the language (to the extent they do).

Numbami is the village language of only one village on the face of the earth. In the 1970s, that village had fewer than 300 people, and even there more people spoke Tok Pisin than Numbami. If the elders had to write, they wrote in Jabêm, the Lutheran mission lingua franca in which all but one old lady had been educated. My host father was educated in Jabêm schools, had taught in them, was an acknowledged authority on the language, and managed to get me interested enough to make Jabêm the standard of reference for much of my analysis of Numbami. (Many years later, I sidelined my Numbami reference grammar to translate Otto Dempwolff‘s grammar of Jabêm after I met by chance online a potential cotranslator in Romania whose German was much better than mine.)

The first paper I published after returning from my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea was on multilingualism and language mixture among the Numbami. If village residents want to find spouses they’re not related to, they generally have to marry someone from a different language group. Unless both spouse and children live in the village, they don’t learn more than the rudiments of the village language. The kids grow up speaking Tok Pisin, in any case. If they pursue education and job opportunities in town, they learn English, too.

Nothing I can do will affect language use in the Numbami village. If people end up abandoning that language in favor of others more useful, I can’t blame them. Villagers have been shifting language loyalties throughout the human history of New Guinea, for all sorts of reasons. The articles I’ve published so far are of little use to anyone except other linguists. But the dictionary I’m now editing may be useful both to a few linguists and to a few educated, town-dwelling people of partial Numbami heritage who want to learn more about their lost ancestral language, but who are accustomed to learning through the medium of English. Finally, the narrative texts may also be of at least historical interest to a third tiny audience of people who learned to speak Numbami in the village and to read it in the Tok Ples Skul.

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