JCJC SHS 3 - JCJC - SHS 3 - Cultures, arts, civilisations

General languages from South America (Quechua, Guarani) XVI and XIX centuries – LANGAS

GENERAL LANGUAGES FROM SOUTH AMERICA : Quechua, Guarani, Tupi (XVIth-XIXth centuries)

In south America, some amerindian languages widely spread before colonial times turned into vehicular languages in spanish and portuguese territories since the XVIth century. They have been written and called “general languages” for religious purposes. Based on the comparative analysis of those text, LANGAS do research on internal (semantic) and external (social) history in order to renew historical anthropology of the region.

Towards a new philology of Amerindian languages to renew historic anthropology of South America

Usually historians are not equipped to read Amerindian languages and Anthropologist, who are expected to acquire this skill, are also more likely to study present social configurations. But when in meso-america a new philology based on maya and nahuatl documents has been fostered, contributing to a new and historical anthropology of those regions, there is little systematic studies of quechua, guarani and tupi. <br />Far from essentialist approach, which tends to see those documents as a proof of indian thought’s resistance, and far from constructivist analysis of the same which only want to see them as a profound occidentalisation, we would like to escape from this debate resistance/occidentalisation and try to look at those documents with new eyes. Our working hypothesis is: Aren’t they an index of the elaboration of a common vocabulary between indigenous and colonial authorities, who both spoke general languages? a kind of linguistic middle ground or contact zone as the result of mutual accommodation, strategies, tactics, mestizajes and creative misunderstandings ? <br />The project LANGAS will turn those corpus visibles, compare them and analyse their contents. We’ll contribute to the social history of languages, to the historical anthropology of the region, and to the semantic history of their political vocabulary. We have selected two distinct corpus related to different periods : the first one when political concepts are being standardized when colonization is affirmed and when amerindian general languages are expanded (mid XVI to mid XVII) and on the contrary when traditional colonial power is being challenged by national independences and by political and economical modernities, in the very moment when those general language are also being fragmented, regionalised and ethnicised (from mid XVIII to mid XIX).

Three steps: philology, semantic history and historical anthropology. A first step is primary philology: palaeography, attribution of the text, historical and dialectical identification, comparison with the rest of the corpus, transliteration in modern graphics, analysis of the conditions of production and diffusion. The secondary philology interprets those documents as testimonies of cultural periods.
In the perspective of Semantic history applied to political vocabulary in Quechua, Guarani and Tupi, we’ll identify key words and its uses in a vast corpus, with specific computer’s tools: the website and a browser able to do research in different graphics have already been built. We expect entirely new results about the indigenous colonial experiences. Therefore our research participates to historical anthropology interested in indigenous social, political and religious organisations. We’ll lay out our result in semantic maps, dictionaries and specific text analysis.

The creation of the Langa’s website, incorporating corpus in Quechua, Guarani and Tupi (in Amerindian and Spanish palaeographic and modern versions.
An international symposium in Paris (22 and 23 of October 2012) in order to study the origin and history of the colonial notion “lenguas generales” and other linked notions; the political vocabulary of manifests, decrees and proclamations written in those languages during the independence period. A collective paper in English is on preparation, and a collective publication in a Spanish review is programed.
An international symposium in Lima in 2014 will contribute to the social history of “lenguas generales” and will promote a new South American philology. A collective book will be elaborated.

Amongst languages in danger, UNESCO identify five from the Tupi linguistic family, seven from the Guarani family and fifteen from the Quechua family. At the same time, some Amerindian languages have been recognised by many Latin American states which tend to define themselves as multicultural and plurilinguistic states. Their policies promote linguistic diversity and the right to express oneself in his native language. Furthermore, Amerindian political philosophy, specially in Quechua fosters international political thought (Buen Vivir or Sumaq Kawsay).
By the way, we seem to discover again and again the importance of those languages, as if they were always ignored and marginalized. Nonetheless, their long history is much more complex, even if constantly subaltern: they had got a political importance for Spanish and Portuguese colonial agents: A common political and religious vocabulary in some Amerindian languages had been settled and expanded between indigenous and colonial authorities. Because of their previous importance and general use amongst numerous and diverse groups in pre-colonial time, some Amerindian languages were chosen to be written, standardized, gramatized and christianized : by colonial times, they were called « general languages » ).
Therefore, the time is right to address these issues from historical and anthropological perspectives. The vast historical corpus of written documents in Quechua, Guarani, Tupi (and others) needs to be visible and accessible for most people. The social history of those languages has to be promoted, the semantic history of their political vocabulary has to be begun and the global history of the region needs to be re-written, by taking all those documents in indigenous languages into account. The project LANGAS contributes to a French tradition of study of Amerindian languages.

Informatic programs which allow a research in corpus written with different graphics could be protected.

Between the XVIth and XIXth centuries, a few variants of Quechua, Aymara, Tupi and Guarani stood out as a conveying language in territories of South America under Spanish and Portuguese domination. These languages known as "general" served as means of communication between the native populations and the colonizers. For the needs of the evangelization, they became written languages. The rich and varied literary production that followed consisted of linguistic tools (grammars and dictionaries), textbooks of catechises but also profane documents (personal letters, wills, petitions,...), erudite poems and dramas. This project contributes to the anthropological and historical research in Andean and tupi-guarani areas through the study and the comparison of these texts. Little exploited until now, they however constitute a source of irreplaceable information for our knowledge and comprehension of the colonized native societies and their cultural and epistemic universes. We'll focus on two key periods: the first one from mid XVI to mid XVII century is characterized by the standardization of the languages and the second one, at the beginning of the XIX century, when latin american nations take their independence, see the decline and ethnicisation of the same. For those periods we'll develop two approaches : a social and political history of language and the ethnohistory of the political organizations of the population through the analysis of the vocabulary.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 150,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2011 - 48 Months

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