Mesoamerican Language Texts Digitization Project

The indigenous peoples of Mexico and northern Central America have a writing tradition that dates to ancient times, although the construction of grammars, vocabularies, and other primarily linguistic documents has a relatively short history. Serious scholarly treatment of indigenous languages of the newly colonized territories began in the sixteenth century, and was well established during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when published works began emanating from printing presses at Mexico City, Guatemala, and elsewhere. The most notable pioneering efforts in the study of the vernacular languages of Mesoamerica can be identified with the evangelization efforts or with the so-called "Spiritual Conquest" of the region entrusted to the regular orders of the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Mercedarians (Ricard 1966).

Missionary Linguists

The knowledge of indigenous languages is a machine de guerre for missionaries, past and present. The first and most important duty was to acquire an oral command of these languages and sometimes to study and codify them for the purpose of teaching their companions. The language study of missionaries was utilitarian and subordinate to their preoccupation with spreading the gospel. Missionary activities were conceived in the Ignatian spirit as military campaigns conducted against the devil and his tools in this world, and, seen in this context, the indigenous languages were necessarily weapons of war. The acquisition of indigenous languages was not uninspired by a quest for knowledge, but rather as a means of cooperating in the divine plan of salvation. Thus, manuscripts and other materials used in the learning process could acquire special virtues. Learning these languages from written works alone proved difficult, although the earliest manuscripts were intended for such use.

Methods of Language Acquisition

The essential difficulty confronting the missionary linguist consisted of analyzing and describing the structure of languages which were completely different from familiar European languages. The initial reaction to this divergence was bewilderment and the assumption that the new language was imperfect and lacked rules.

The influence of classical and general grammar on the writings of missionaries was considerable. The various approaches tried by early missionaries to acquire native languages are detailed in many religious histories. However, the pattern of language acquisition and study established in the first missions was generally followed in subsequent enterprises and settlements. This pattern deviated little from modern field methods as far as the basic procedure was concerned. First, missionaries sought an informant, bilingual if possible, and through a series of questions and answers began to record basic vocabularies and language structure. These efforts were crude and it was expected that subsequent checks and revisions would be necessary. After a sufficient number of notes were collected, missionaries, working singly or in groups, proceeded to discover the evident linguistic structure.

After the initial period of expansion, missionaries newly arrived from Spain were assisted by more experienced colleagues and underwent regular instruction in the native languages, either at the assigned mission station or in one of the central convent houses. Transient Indians were used as informants, and newcomers did regular class work under an assigned instructor.

The preoccupation of the missionary, after the acquisition of a basic working knowledge of the language, was to prepare a list of words and expressions and a fundamental grammar. This was eventually followed by the translation of liturgical texts, simple prayers and songs, and an outline catechism. The translation of important Biblical passages, along with homilies explaining them, and the preparation of a book of rites (i.e., administration of the sacraments) would eventually follow.

The preparation of such materials was rarely the work of a single person, but rather composed by a team of missionaries, or by a succession of individuals in the same mission station, each adding a few items, and copying and editing materials as they were inherited by predecessors. These texts were then used in the daily work in the mission, which consisted mostly of catechism classes for children and adults, administration of the sacraments, the conducting of special public devotions, and the visiting of families and groups of people to practice charity and induce conversions.

Range of Missionary Language Texts

Early missionary writings in indigenous languages represent two principal types of works: grammatical or lexicographical, and religious. The grammars, usually termed artes, have proved to be valuable to later scholars interested in the structure of languages, and some of the vocabularios of the early Spanish clergy (e.g., Alonso Molina's 1571 Vocabulario en lengua mexicana y castellana) have never been excelled. Although these writers tried to fit native languages into the unwieldy molds of the classical grammars, they recorded important observations and compiled thousands of words which have been the foundation for more recent efforts.

Another manifestation of the desire to implant Spanish civilization and culture in the Americas was the introduction of the printing press. This was decided upon about 1533 and John Cromberger was persuaded to undertake the enterprise. In 1539 he established a branch of his Seville office in Mexico City and entered into a contract with Juan Pablos, a native of Lombardy, to print books in Mexico bearing the inscription Impresso en Casa de Juan Cromberger.

Because of the early printing in New Spain, many of the linguistic efforts of the Spanish clergy have been preserved. The prototypes of Spanish literature in Indian languages of Mexico are found in the works on Nahuatl, since this language was the one heard in the region where the Spaniards first established themselves. Later there appeared writings in Huastec, Otomi, Tarascan, Totonacan, Mayan, Mixtec, Zapotec, and so forth. Within sixty years after the initial arrival of the Spaniards there were grammars, dictionaries, and religious books available in all of these languages. Much of the material was printed and, in some cases, in extra editions.

Capabilities of Missionary Linguists

The capabilities of early missionary linguists may be inferred from the grammars, vocabularies, and other linguistic manuscripts which were used in convents for the recording, learning, and teaching of native populations. These documents emphasize what were perceived to be the most outstanding features of these languages, features worth publishing for the benefit of the curious and learned in Europe. The printed works also represent the only source of information on the subject readily available during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Personal subjective assessments as recorded in historical narratives provide the primary evidence of linguistic proficiency. Such documents suggest that new arrivals were able to teach simple prayers to children in a relatively short period of time. It is unclear whether "teaching" involved explanations of Christian doctrine or simply the presentation of prayers for recital. Similarly there must have been a difference in rate of learning between early missionaries and subsequent ones. Individual ability remained the main variable for indigenous language acquisition. Little is known of the linguistic skills of the average missionary, although there is a record of extreme cases of individuals whose linguistic talent was obviously outstanding, or of those who failed in some aspect of their missionary work because of an inability to master an indigenous language.

Post-Colonial Study of Indigenous Languages

A resurgence of interest in the native languages of Mexico and Central America during the nineteenth century resulted in the reprinting of important earlier works, the initial printing of older documents, and the beginning of non-Latinate linguistic descriptions which accompanied the development of linguistics as a science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Roys 1952; Scholes 1952; Tozzer 1921; Weeks 1990).

Many of the early ecclesiastical writings that survived the colonial period in Mexico and northern Central America were preserved in a limited number of church and official archives. Unfortunately, the period after independence of the region from Spain was characterized by the dispersion and, in some cases, the destruction of entire archives. For example, nearly all of the civil and religious archives of northern Yucatan were destroyed during the well-known Maya Caste War or Insurrection of 1847. During the revolutionary period in Mexico between 1900 and 1915, peasant armies destroyed many library and archival collections throughout central and southern Mexico. The bishop of Chiapas, Francisco Orozco y Jimenez collected all known manuscripts of historical and linguistic importance to Chiapas into a central episcopal archive. This archive was later used as a stable with "the horses eating up the parchment."

This period of political upheaval witnessed the removal of priceless manuscripts for sale in Europe and the United States. Important collections were sold or otherwise dispersed at this time. Stringent laws were passed in response to the removal of cultural patrimony but these appear to have been ineffective as evidenced by the apparent case with which important manuscripts appeared in several great library collections in Europe and the United States.

Mesoamerican Language Texts Digitization Project

The Mesoamerican Language Texts Digitization Project developed from a desire to make available to scholars, students, and enthusiasts world-wide, a selection of primary documents pertaining to the ethnohistory and linguistics of the indigenous populations of Mexico and northern Central America. This is a collaborative arrangement between the Sandra Noble, Ph.D., Director, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) and the Libraries of the University of Pennsylvania. The selection of titles to be included was made by John M. Weeks, Ph.D., Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The scanning and production of the images was under the supervision of Michael Ryan, Ph.D., Director, and Greg Bear, Manager/IS Specialist, Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Metadata development and original cataloging was facilitated by Nancy M. Shawcross, Ph.D., Curator of Manuscripts, and Amey Hutchins, Manuscripts Cataloger, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania Libraries. At FAMSI in Crystal River, Sandy Mielke continues as the Über webmeister who can create order out of chaos.

Materials to be digitized and made available on the FAMSI website will derive from the personal research collections assembled by the German physician Carl Hermann Berendt and the North American anthropologist Daniel Garrison Brinton. Biographical notes and statements on the historical development of these collections are available online (Weeks 2000, 2002).

The following manuscripts will be available soon, for the catalog of manuscripts currently available online click here.

Aguilar, Francisco. Pláticas en pocomchí, 1818, 1822. 15, 40 leaves. (Weeks 2002 no.63).

Anléo, Bartolome. Arte de lengua kiché, compuesto por N.M.R. Pe. Fr. Bartolomé Anléo, religioso menor de N.S.P. San Francisco; copia tomada de una copia en poder de Dr. E.G. Squier en Nueva York, sacada de una copia en la Biblioteca Imperial en Paris, la cual había sido tomada del original por Fr. Anto. Ramírez de Utrilla, el año de 1744. 136 p. (Weeks 2002 no.158).

Ara, Domingo de. Extractos del "Arte de la lengua tzendal," por el R.P. Fr. Domingo de Ara, de la Orden de Santo Domingo. 8 p. (Weeks 2002 no.174).

Arte breve en lengua tzoque, conforme se habla en Tecpatlán, precedido de la doctrina cristiana y catecismo en la misma lengua; copiado de un manuscrito en poder del Abate Brasseur. Mérida de Yucatán, 1870. 57 p. (Weeks 2002 no.191).

Arte de la lengua vulgar mexicana, qual se habla en Escuintla y otros pueblos de el reyno. n.d. 30 leaves. (Weeks 2002 no.192).

Arte de lengua cacchi para bien común; traslado de uno que tuvo el Pe. Pdor. Grl. Fray Joséph Ruiz, que de Dios gose. San Juan Chamelco, 1741. 41 p. (Weeks 2002 no.193)

Barreda, Nicolás de la. Doctrina cristiana en lengua chinanteca añadida la explicación de los principales mysterios de la fee; modo de baptizar en caso de necesidad, y de ayundar á bien morir, y método de administración de sacramentos, por el Br. D. Nicolás de la Barrerda, cura beneficiado, juez eclesiástico del beneficio de S. Pedro de Yolos de el obsipado de Oaxaca; dedicalo al muy Ill.re y vene cabildo de la Santa Iglesia de la ciudad de Antequera. Por los Herederos de la Viuda de Francisco Rodríguez Lupercio, en la Frente de Palacio, en México, año de 1730. 119 p. (Weeks 2002 no.298).

Beltrán, Pedro., de Santa Rosa María, Declaración de la doctrina cristiana en el idioma yucateco. Imprenta por J.D. Espinosa e hijos, Mérida, 1866. 32 p. (Weeks 2002 no.373).

Berendt, Carl H. Apuntes sobre la lengua chaneabal, con un vocabulario. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 1870. 7, 25 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.378).

Berendt, Carl H. Apuntes sobre la lengua mije, por C.H. Berendt, M.D. 1870. 16 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.379).

Berendt, Carl H. Apuntes y estudios sobre la lengua chiapaneca. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 1869, 1870. 88 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.380).

Berendt, Carl H. Lengua maya, dialecto del Petén, Sacluk, 1866-1867. 9 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.390).

Berendt, Carl H. Los trabajos lingüísticos de Joaquin Pío Pérez. Leon y White, México, 1871. 6 p. (Weeks 2002 no.394).

Berendt, Carl H. Notas gramaticales sobre la lengua maya de Yucatán. Providence, R.I., 1864. 43 p. (Weeks 2002 no.404).

Berendt, Carl H. Vorläusige Liste der Völker, Stamme, Sprachen und Dialecte von Mexico und Central America. n.d. 27 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.414).

Cano, Agustin. Informe dado al Rey, sobre la entrada que por la parte de la Verapaz se hizo al Petén el año 1695 y fragmento de una carta del mismo sobre el propio asunto. n.d. 19, 27 p. (Weeks 2002 no.866).

Cantos en lengua mexicana, 17 cent. 18 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.869).

Carvajal, Francisco L. Discurso para el descendimiento del Señor por D. Francisco Carvajal, presbitero; copiado del original, manuscrito en poder del parocco de Santiago en Mérida, Pbro. D. Nic Delgado, noviembre 1868, Dr. C.H. Berendt. 40 p. (Weeks 2002 no.903).

Castillejo, Clemente. Frases en lengua zotzil, 1830; fragmento. 3 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.910).

Chilam Balam. Two books of Chilam Balam; manuscript copy of Chilam Balam of Chumayel and Chilam Balam of Tizimin, pp. 135-238, 141 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.1047).

Colección de platicas doctrinales y sermones en lengua maya, 1868. 257 p. (Weeks 2002 no.1081).

Doctrina cristiana y confesionario en lengua kekchi y castellano, con un pequeño vocabulario del archivo de la parroquia de Cobán, copiado por C. Hermann Berendt, M.D., Cobán, febrero de 1875. 51 p. (Weeks 2002 no.1306).

Doctrina y confesionario en lengua ixil; precedidos de un corto modo para aprenderla, y ritual de matrimonio, por el cura párroco de Nebah, 1824. 28 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.1307).

Guzmán, Pantaleón de. Libro yntitulado Compendio de nombres en lengua cakchiquel y significados de verbos por ymperativo y acumulativos reciprocos en doce tratados por el Pe. Predicador. F. Pantaleón de Guzmán; cura doctrinero por el real patronato de esta doctrina y curato de Santa María de Jesús Paché;en veinte dias del mes de octubre, de mil setecientos y quatro años. 323 p. (Weeks 2002 no.1819).

Guzmán, Pantaleón de. Traslado este vocabulario el sobredicho Pe. el año de 1620 años en la provincia de los Tzeldales en el pueblo de Taquinvitz, n.d. 221 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.1820).

Henderson, Alexander, and Richard Fletcher. Leti u ebanhelio Hezo Crizto hebix Huan. Printed for the British and Foreign Bible Society by J.C. Clay…at the University Press, London, 1869. 83 p. (Weeks 2002 no.1979).

Henderson, Alexander. The Maia Primer, by Alexander Henderson, Belize, Honduras, etc. Printed by J. Showell, Birmingham, England, 1852. 12 p. (Weeks 2002 no.1984).

Lengua maya de Yucatán. n.d. 53 p. (Weeks 2002 no.2386).

Levanto, Leonardo. Catecismo de la doctrina cristiana, en lengua zapoteca; dispuesto por el M.R.P. Mró. Fr. Leonardo Levanto…impreso con las licencias necesarias en la Puebla por la viuda de Miguel de Ortega; y por su original en la Oficina Palafoxiana de dicha ciudad, año de 1776. 82 p. (Weeks 2002 no.2434).

Libro en pocomchí y kekchí. 194 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.2470).

Memoirs of an Eventful Expedition in Central America, Resulting in the Discovery of the Idolatrous City of Iximaya, Described by John L. Stephens and Other Travelers. New York, 1850. 35 p. (Weeks 2002 no.2747).

Modo de administrar los sacramentos en castellano y tzendal, 1707. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 1870. 44 p. (Weeks 2002 no.2826).

Nahuatl de San Augustín Acasaguastlán, 16 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3033)

Nican ycuiliuhtic ayninxi tlapoval catca mexica ça nauhtetl; Historia del imperio azteco, continuidad hasta el año de 1607, documento pictográfico con texto en lengua nahuatl, 1873. 19 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3058).

Oraciones en lengua quiché de Rabinal, con unos fragmentos en lengua cuchechi (Cagchi), n.d. 7 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3111).

Osorio, Lope de. Auto de la real visita en el pueblo de Chiapa de la Real Corona, a favor de los indios de dicha comunidad, fecho en Guathemala, a 24 de junio de 1665. 54 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3130).

Pasión de jueves santo en lengua chapaneca, a 18 de marzo 1818; Pasión de juebes santo quesi yospaque tzesi iscohina is año de 1818. 4 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3171).

Pasión de Nro. Señor Jesucristo en la lengua zoque, n.d. (Weeks 2002 no.3172)

Pasión de Nro. Señor Jesucristo, en lengua zoque; os evangelios del Domingo de Ramos, jueves santo y viernes santo, como los cantan los indios de Tuxtla. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 1870. 55 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3173).

Pasión en lengua chapaneca; canciones de los indios de Suchiapa. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 1870. 93 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3174).

Pérez, Juan Pío. Apuntes del diccionario de la lengua maya, compuestos con vista de varios catalogos antiquos de sus voces y aumentado con oran suma de las de uso comun y otras que se han extractado de manuscritos antiquos, por un yucateco aficionado a la lengua, 1855. 468 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3221).

Pérez, Juan Pío. Recetarios de indios en lengua maya: índices de plantas medicinales y de enfermedades coordinados por D. Juan Pío Pérez; con estractos de los recetarios, notas y añadiduras, por C. Hermann Berendt, M.D. Mérida, 1870. 79 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3225).

Pláticas de la historia sagrada en lengua cacchii del siglo XVII mo. 126 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3318).

Platicas piadosas en lengua mexicana vulgar de Guatemala, n.d. 59-71 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3319).

Pláticas sobre los mandamientos de la ley de Dios en el idioma kekchí, n.d. 8 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3320).

Ripalda, Gerónimo de. Doctrina cristiana según el P. Ripalda en idioma zoque, n.d. 52 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3562).

Rocha, Juan Eligio de la. Apuntamientos de la lengua mangue, por D. Juan Eligio de la Rocha. Masaya, 1842. 11 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3581).

Rudimentos gramaticales u oserbaciones en ydioma tzotzil de Cinacantlan, n.d. 28 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3628).

Ruz, José Joaquín Francisco Carrillo de. A Yucatecan grammar; by the R.J. Ruz, of Mérida, abridged for the instruction of the native Indians from the compendium of Diego Narciso Herranz y Quiros; translated from the Maya or Yucatecan language, by John Kingdon, Baptist missionary, Belize, Honduras. Printed at the Baptist Mission Press, 1847, Belize. 121 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3643).

Ruz, José Joaquín Francisco Carrillo de. El devoto instruido en el santo sacrificio de la misa, por el P. Luiz Lanzzi, de la Compañía de Jesús; traducción libre al idioma yucateco, con unos afectos. Impreso por José Antonio Pino, Mérida de Yucatán, 1835. 41 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3649).

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia de México [copied from an original in the Medicean Library in Florence], 1889. 91 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3660).

San Buenaventura, Gabriel de. Arte de la lengua maya, 1684. 41 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3669).

Sermon para el dia de San Juan en lengua kekchí. Cobán, n.d. 3 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.3827).

Sermones en lengua maya, copiados de un manuscrito anciano; ejemplos, discursos y vidas de santos, 1750. 144 p. (Weeks 2002 no.3829)

Váldez, Sebastián. Vocabulario de la lengua pocomam de Mita, por D. Sebastián Váldez, cura de Jutiapa, 1868; copiado del original en poder de D. Juan Gavarrete en Guatemala, febrero de 1875. 7 p. (Weeks 2002 no.4258).

Via sacra en lengua ccakcchi, copiado de un m[anuscrito] en poder de Domingo Coy, indio de Cobán. Cobán, abril, 1875. 30 p. (Weeks 2002 no.4292).

Vico, Domingo de. Sermon y platica des Mathias apostol, n.d. leaves 188-203 (Weeks 2002 no.4295).

Vico, Domingo de. Theologia indorum, scripta in lingua tzutuhila, 1553. 29 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.4296).

Villacañas, Benito de. Arte y vocabulario de la lengua kachiquel; copiado en Nueva York, 1871. 346 p. (Weeks 2002 no.4301).

Villacorta, Rafael. Doctrina cristiana en lengua castellana, quekchi y pocomchí, coordinada por Rafael Villacorta, Santo Domingo Cobán, 1875. 7 leaves. (Weeks 2002 no.4302).

Vocabularios de la lengua xinca de Sinacantan por D. Juan Gavarrete (1868) y de Yupiltepeque y Jalapa por D. Sebastián Váldez, cura de Intiapa (1868); copiado de los originales en poder de don Juan Gavarrete, en Guatemala, febrero de 1875. 15 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.4338).

Ximénez, Francisco. Bocabulario de la lengua cakchiquel, n.d. 35, 52 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.4490).

Zaccicoxol, o baile de Cortes, en kiché y castellano. Cobán, 1875. 69 leaves (Weeks 2002 no.4497).

Sources Cited

Ricard, Robert
1966 The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523-1572. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Roys, Ralph L.
1952 The Franciscan contribution to Maya linguistic research in Yucatan. Americas 8:417-429. Washington, DC.
Scholes, France V.
1952 Franciscan missionary scholars in colonial Central America. Americas 8:391-416. Washington, DC.
Tozzer, Alfred M.
1921 A Maya Grammar; With Bibliography and Appraisement of the Works Noted. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Papers, 9. Cambridge, MA.
Weeks, John M.
1985 Middle American Indians: A Guide to the Manuscript Collection at Tozzer Library, Harvard University. New York: Garland.
Weeks, John M.
1987 Maya Ethnohistory: A Guide to Spanish Colonial Documents at Tozzer Library, Harvard University. Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology, 34. Nashville.
Weeks, John M.
1990 Mesoamerican Ethnohistory in United States Libraries: Reconstruction of the William E. Gates Collection of Historical and Linguistic Manuscripts. Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos.
Weeks, John M.
1998 Carl Hermann Berendt: colección de manuscritos linguísticos de Centroamérica y Mesoamérica. Mesoamerica 36:619-693.
Weeks, John M.
2000 The Daniel Garrison Brinton Collection. In: The Penn Library Collections at 250 : From Franklin to the Web. pp. 164-181. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library. http://oldsite.library.upenn.edu/special/at250/anthropology/anthropology.html
Weeks, John M.
2002 The Library of Daniel Garrison Brinton. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. http://www.library.upenn.edu/eresources/brinton.html.

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