A tale of two Jesuit grammarians

It’s a fact little known even to Brazilians themselves – perhaps because it doesn’t sit too comfortably with official discourses on national identity and history – but for almost 200 years after the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese in 1500, the main language used in the country, initially for communication between the colonists and the local inhabitants and subsequently among the growing mixed-race population, was not Portuguese, but the so-called língua brasílica, a simplified and homogenized version of the indigenous Tupinambá language and other closely related dialects which were spoken over a vast coastal region stretching more than 4,000 km from the modern state of Ceará in the north to São Paulo state in the south. In recognition of the fact that it deliberately ironed out dialectal differences to facilitate learning and communication, it was also known as the língua geral (‘lingua franca’) and it even caught on as a convenient means of communication between indigenous tribes who spoke completely different languages from one another. In fact, two distinct varieties of the língua geral were developed: a northern one, centred around the Amazon region, known by its native name of Nheengatu (‘good speech’), and a southern one, used at first throughout the southeast but later mainly in São Paulo state, known as the língua geral paulista (‘the São Paulo lingua franca’). The language included a fair number of Portuguese words, duly adapted to Tupinambá phonology, such as kamixa (< camisa) ‘shirt’, baká (< vaca) ‘cow’, kabaru (< cavalo) ‘horse’ and kabará (< cabra) ‘goat’, loanwords for things imported from Europe and previously unknown to the indigenous population. At this time, Portuguese was only really used for official purposes in Brazil and obviously amongst the relatively small number of Portuguese colonists themselves.

The first settlers had learnt to communicate in the local language out of necessity, but soon the motivation became the catechization of the locals, spearheaded by the Jesuits. The most remarkable of these was undoubtedly José de Anchieta. He was born in the Canary Islands in 1534 and, in addition to Spanish, also spoke Basque which he had learned from his father. He arrived in Brazil in 1553 at the age of 19 and immediately set about learning the língua geral. Not only that, he also started compiling a grammar of the language which he completed in 1560. Entitled Arte de Grammatica da Lingoa Mais Vsada na Costa do Brasil (‘Art of Grammar of the Language Most Used on the Coast of Brazil’), the manuscript was initially copied by hand and only printed for the first time in 1595, by which time it had already become a must-have manual of the language for Jesuit missionaries throughout the colony. Apart from speaking the language fluently, Anchieta also went on to compose poetry and write plays in it.

His grammar is a remarkable feat, not least because he was the first person ever to write down the Tupinambá language. He single-handedly developed a writing system for the language using the Latin alphabet with Portuguese sound values. He describes the language using traditional Latin grammatical categories and often uses Latin to translate grammatical forms, which stands to reason, as Latin was still the language of academia at that time. It may seem strange to us today to use the grammatical categories of classical Latin to describe a language so different from Indo-European ones, but that is how any grammar was written at the time and using this traditional methodology would have made his work immediately accessible to other European learners who would have been used to studying foreign languages in that way.

Unfortunately, the língua geral ended up becoming a victim of its own success. Alarmed by how widespread it had become and seeing it as a threat to Portuguese control, the de facto ruler of Portugal at the time, the Marquês de Pombal, handed down a decree in 1758 banning the use of all indigenous languages in the Portuguese colonies as well as the teaching of the lingua geral, which he called a ‘diabolical invention of the Jesuits’. A year later, he expelled the Jesuits from Brazil entirely. The language took a while to die out, of course, and the northern variety, Nheengatu, is still used by a small community of indigenous people even today (see video link below). Apart from its influence on the grammar and pronunciation of Brazilian Portuguese, the most obvious legacy of the língua geral is the huge number of place names as well as hundreds of words for animals, plants and other natural phenomena first encountered in Brazil which were borrowed into Portuguese.

While reading about Anchieta, I was reminded of João Rodrigues Tçuzu, another remarkable Jesuit missionary who made a similarly momentous contribution to the history of grammar writing, this time on the other side of the world in Japan. Almost a contemporary of Anchieta, Rodrigues was born in 1561 (or possibly 1562) and arrived in Japan at the age of just 15. He must have been an exceptionally gifted linguist as he quickly learnt to speak, read and write both Japanese and Chinese and was employed as an interpreter first by high-ranking envoys of the Catholic church and subsequently by two Japanese shoguns, all of which earned him the epithet Tçuzu, an early Portuguese transcription of the Japanese word 通事 tsuuji (‘official interpreter’).

Rodrigues published his three-volume Arte da Lingoa de Iapam (‘Art of the Language of Japan’) between 1604 and 1608. It was the first ever grammar of the Japanese language written by a Westerner and the first to be printed. Like Anchieta, Rodrigues not only devised his own system of transcribing Japanese into the Latin alphabet, he also used the grammatical categories of Latin to describe Japanese grammar. For example, the Japanese case particles are presented as if they were Latin case endings (which seems to me a perfectly reasonable way of looking at them – see picture right). The first volume of the grammar covers morphology, including honorifics. The second examines syntax, rhetoric, dialects, pronunciation, accent and poetry, while the third is a guide on how to read kanji (Chinese characters), with additional information on personal names and the Japanese calendar. Later, in 1620, Rodrigues published a more concise, practical version of the grammar entitled Arte Breue da Lingoa Iapoa (‘Short Art of the Japanese Language’). Rodrigues also went on to publish other writings on Japanese life and language.

Though with hindsight the Jesuits’ motives and methods were undoubtedly highly dubious, that shouldn’t take away from the amazing achievements of these two individuals and their contribution to the study of languages on a global scale. As an Englishman living in Brazil, author of a grammar of Brazilian Portuguese and eternal student of Japanese, I kind of identify with them both. They were certainly men after my own heart.

4 thoughts on “A tale of two Jesuit grammarians”

  1. Definitely a good read for Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike!

    As a Brazilian, I feel sorry (and somewhat resent…) that the “lingua geral” didn’t establish as the primary language of Brazil. What a wonderful thing this would have been!

    It must be pointed out, however, that it is highly debatable whether the dictate by Marques de Pombal had any influence at all in the demise of the “língua geral”. This remains a rather nebulous chapter of Brazil’s linguistic history.

    In his “História Sociopolítica da Língua Portuguesa”, Carlos Alberto Faraco posits a number of factors that contributed to bringing the “língua geral” to near extinction. His excellent book delves into complex, deep, still ongoing socioeconomic processes that have taken place over at least the last two centuries and that may help explain why Portuguese, and not the “linguas gerais”, established itself as the hegemonic language of Brazil.

    Among which, he points to the industrialization process that started at the end of the 19th century; the intense urbanization, as a consequence of that industrialization process; the many, major migration waves throughout the several regions of the country, which redesigned the demographics of Brazil and brought about deep sociolinguistic effects that are yet to be fully understood; mass presence of the media outlets (first the radio, then the TV); the expansion of the basic school system and the lowering of illiteracy rates.

    Together, those factors constitute a veritable revolution that has not been adequately studied.

    It is a widely held belief among historical linguistic scholars that it was the Portuguese language spoken by the enslaved peoples of the African continent (the language these people brought along with them as they were moved about the country by their masters) that left the biggest impact on the language that we speak in Brazil today.

    Along with the indigenous heritage, this finding definitely doesn’t sit too comfortably with official discourses on national identity.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Eduardo! My view is that there are many different factors involved in Brazil’s linguistic history and they all played their part in the development of Brazilian Portuguese as we know it today. I personally don’t think we can conclusively prove that any one of these factors was more significant than the others. I have read some theories that are obvious attempts to “whitewash” Brazilian linguistic history, claiming that the unique features of Brazilian Portuguese can be traced back to non-standard 16th century Portuguese dialects, but even if there is some truth in this theory, it is intellectually dishonest to try to discount the massive impact of Portuguese being only a second language (and one linguistically very different from their own) for the majority of the inhabitants of Brazil for at least two centuries. It may be difficult to prove the direct influence of indigenous or African languages, but the very fact that Portuguese was used by and with non-native speakers would naturally lead to simplification of the grammar, which is clear to see when we compare the syntax of spoken BP with the more formal written variety, which has stayed much closer to European Portuguese.

      1. Thank you for your reply, John.

        You are right, the impact of the African languages on Brazilian Portuguese is yet a new field of study. However, great strides have been made in that arena, even within a relatively short period of time.

        I take the liberty of sharing a very interesting book on that subject. The organizers are themselves pioneering researchers of the influence of the banto languages on Brazilian Portuguese — which, it is posited, goes far beyond lexical contributions to include important morphosyntactic and phonetic changes.

        Please know that one of the contributors, Dante Lucchesi, himself has shared this link on his Facebook page, encouraging more people to get acquainted with this debate.

        Thanks again.

        Um abraço!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *