I hope you’ve all read Nicholas Ostler’s, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.
Published to much acclaim was this book, and certainly he’s put a lot of work into it, but he’s made a mistake or two and it is surely incumbent upon every newt astute enough to perceive them to mention them to anyone who, without the many benefits of eye-of-newt hermeneutical techniques, might be seduced by the hype and claim to high authority of this extraordinarily well-written book, into believing that it is academically adequate. My darling little efts, eggs and variously educated and mis-educated entities, it absolutely isn’t. And the way it fails of academic excellence has some, er… interesting political implications.

It begins with a Preface which gives us a laudably post-modern (at long last) glance at an idea of ‘language’ as distinct from ‘languages’, and then in the Prologue he bids a cavalier farewell to Commonsense, and with it 20th/1st Century hermeneutics and along with them both all claim to credibility as a scholar. Yes, in the very next pages he gives a poignant account of the meeting between Hernán Cortés and Moteukzoma (Montezuma) on the causeway across the lake to Tenochtitlán that has never been subjected to rigorous, academic scrutiny, but its sources are always treated as impeccable eye-witness accounts not ever to be doubted in any detail on any account whatsoever.

Now I doubt not that this man Ostler is a well-loved person making valued contributions to the saving of threatened languages, and no doubt he is personally charming and good-natured – I would hope so. I know he is a real, warm, honourable, loving, caring person, and I wish him health and prosperity in all his good dealings and kindly correction in all others, as I would wish for myself, and it is his relative merit that has brought his prologue under the lens today. I find fault with it, and I shirk not.

Any real hermeneuts among you will not fail to notice the many grand and glorious ideas for PhD theses to be plucked from the many hermeneutically astounding, rich and myriad-faceted details and levels as we flick the sludge from our gills and enter this exquisite little text. Accompanying us today will be Axol O’Tl, famed neotenous newt of the luminous lake (willing to answer any questions, and even if we ax a lot’ll answer ‘em all 🙂 )! There’s bags of stuff about the who, what, when and where that we could detail and mountains more that we have yet to get articulate about, and that’s only in locating the current publication and its author and his informants and their sources. And every step of the way there’s politics, religion, and other forms of vested interest at every turn. Not just baggage, but there’s some hard-driving stuff in there, and some of it impacts powerfully on peoples lives. Whether for good or ill, let’s look…

First, let’s cut through the heavy hermeneutical work without too much attention to detail, lifting it gently out of the matrix, chipping off the rust and coral, wiping away the muck. Here we have a text (the prologue) within a text (the book) which discusses a text (a written account of a dialogue between Cortés and Moteukzuma taken from a text (the contemporary encyclopaedia of Aztec culture, General History of the Affairs of New Spain ) which was selected from many other contemporary texts which also record, it after having been taken down by a recorder from bilingual utterances a portion of which are interpreted. Ostler is writing in English from sources including many key sources originally in Spanish, except for the Nahuatl sentences attributed to Moteukzoma.

Now the Prologue itself is a simple account purporting to be factual of the meeting of two cultures whose languages, Spanish and Nahuatl, were mutually unintelligible. The meeting was mediated by a Nahuatl speaker from Coatzacoalcos, a good deal more than the length of England from Tenochtitlán, who had been ‘traded’ as a child to Xicalanco 200 miles west Tenochtitlán, and so understood Yucatan Maya, and a Spanish priest who had lived for eight years in a Mayan village after being ship-wrecked. Moteukzoma spoke in Nahuatl, the Yucatan speaker translated it into Yucatek Maya and the priest translated from the Mayan to the Spanish. The Mexican chieftain welcomed Cortés as a god, or at least a mighty Lord, and yielded his authority to him without hesitation. And without so much as an academic qualm, Ostler believes it, O ye beauteous ones, totally unhermeneuted as it is. (Yes, Elaine, I did, I coined that word, but you may use it free of charge if you wish, just mention this URL when you do.)

Hmmm. Well, questions do arise in the hermeneutical mind, and not least among them, why haven’t the academics asked any of them? Let’s ask that miracle of neoteny, Axol O’Tl Axolotl.

Herman Newt: Welcome to our tasteful little blog on the edges of Academica here, ah, Axol O’Tl. Has anyone got a clear account of the linguistic situation back then, late 15th, early 16th century?

Axol O’Tl: Well, I can’t explain why no-one’s asked until now, unless they’re still too enchanted by Cortés’s account of himself, or complicit in his fraud, but since you ask, nope. The information we have is very, very sketchy. There’s been a lot of sickness, genocide, social disaster and cultural collapse since then, and the Nahual that survives has evolved. And the languages of Central America, like those of southern North American and Northern South America were always very fluid and complex, with most people belonging to several linguistic groups at various stages of their lives. Political boundaries have never coincided with linguistic boundaries, and within any geographical area uniformity and immutability of a speech is rare, even when languages remain clearly distinguished in the minds of most speakers. Most population centres would have several languages. There were lots of lineages, all proud and competitive and mixed marriages wove them together, along with their languages. So while most people spoke more than one language, many individual languages came into being and died out within a generation. Some of these were prestigious and others had great local or widespread influence on other accounts.

Herman Newt: How easily would native speakers of Nahuatl from centres six or seven hundred miles apart have understand each other at a first meeting?

Axol O’Tl: Well it’s bloody obvious isn’t it, I mean, how likely is it? Hmmm? They’re further apart than London and Scotland, for example, and a good rural Scotch burr takes some getting used to if say, rural Somerset’s your English, though they’re both ‘English’. Even some old dialects much closer to London were impenetrable until you’d lived with them for a while. And this Yucatan speaker, now how old was she when she was ‘traded’? Had she but fading memories of infantile Nahuatl? Or had she been traded as part of a group, for wives maybe, in which case she may have been able to keep it up pretty well. Obviously, with the information we now have, we’re left guessing. But since nowhere else in the world does it occur that two diverging forms of a language that distant in a culture that various and changeable remain mutually intelligible for long, it seems highly unlikely that she’d have been much help.

Herman Newt: How likely is it then that her Yucatan would have been identical with, or intelligible to natives of the village in which the priest had lived for 11 years?

Axol O’Tl: How would anyone know? How well did the priest learn Yucatan during his stay? Was he alone among them, in which case he’d have picked up some, or was his whole crew there, in which case the pressure to learn to speak it well would have been a lot less. No-one knows.

Herman Newt: The speeches attributed to Moteukzuma have been recorded in Spanish by scribes perfectly unacquainted with the Nahuatl language then?

Axol O’Tl: Yes.

Herman Newt: And were taken down from the dubious translation of a dubious translation?

Axol O’Tl: Yes.

Herman Newt: And this translation is the one still being offered to us as the correct one! Does this agree with the modern Nahua?

Axol O’Tl: Nobody’s ever asked. They take Cortés at his word.

Herman Newt: No! No historian would! No scholar would!

Axol O’Tl: You’d think, wouldn’t you.

Herman Newt: So, is tot¬eukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih really what was said? And does it really mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Axol O’Tl: No, Herman it doesn’t. The second two words are a pair, variants, in fact, of a single sentence. Observe that otikm__iy_wiltih are identical in each. Vowels only have to be unstressed to vary a lot. Where one spelling give o and the other I, you can posit a schwa. It’s a Spaniard writing it, and there are several Spanishes now, and there were more back them. Z and th and h are confusable in the old ship-board creoles. So otikmihiyawiltih is the same as otikmoziyowiltih. The scribe recording this was evidently trying out different spellings, which a recorder of rapid speech eye-witnessing a historic first encounter between two civilizations would have been most unlikely to have time for. So no, it doesn’t mean ‘Our lord, how you must have suffered, how tired you must be…?’

Herman Newt: So what does ‘toteukyoe, otikmihiyowiltih otikmoziyawiltih’ really mean?

Axol O’Tl: Who can guess? They’ve had to make something up. Nobody really believes that Moteukzuma really surrendered to Cortés believing him to be a superior being. Cortés was in a position to lie like a pig in slush and get away with atrocities. No one knew enough to contradict. By the time Nahuatl had been practically reinvented to accommodate fraudulent translations like this, it was impossible to tell how what words got into which lexicons and entered the language that way, as a contaminant. And the normally fluid Nahuatl language went on evolving, and now just shakes its head, same as the native Irish speakers with old Irish. But while they have something, anything, to support it they can get away with it. Especially if you can get ’em for atrocities – cannibalism, human sacrifice, anti-Semitism…
No record at all exists of what was said there. The only texts they have are no more transcripts of real conversations between people up against seriously daunting linguistic barriers than my back foot.

Herman Newt: Thank you, Axol, for your time.

Axol O’Tl: My pleasure!

Well, everybody, Lynn Gwyst’d be the one to ask. Maybe next time. For homework, read Four Masterworks of American Literature: Quetzalcoatl, The Ritual of Condolence, Cuceb, The Night Chant. Edited by John Bierhorst. University of Arizona Press / Tucson 1989 ISBN 0-8165-0886-0. Write a nine and a half thousand word essay on why you think Quetzalcoatl sailed from Cornwall in a ship, showing your hermeneutical workings out in the margins and lots and lots of foot-notes and bibliogs, and what has any of it got to do with Penn Bran yn y Gyst (Head of Bran in its chest). Mention evidence of race-memory-trace links to the folk-song, The Irish Rover: ‘She was an iligant craft, she was rigged fore and aft/and how the tradewinds drove her…!’


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