Introduction to the Alvarado Vocabulario


From Image to Alphabet

FIGURE 7. View of the Alhambra, the Muslim palace at Granada. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 7. View of the Alhambra, the Muslim palace at Granada. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 8. The cathedral of Ávila, as seen from the medieval city walls. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 8. The cathedral of Ávila, as seen from the medieval city walls. Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 9. The nose-piercing of Lord 8 Deer

FIGURE 9. The nose-piercing of Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw,” from page 52 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 10. The open chapel and church at Teposcolula in the Mixteca Alta, originally built in the sixteenth century. Teposcolula was the Dominican monastery where Francisco de Alvarado prepared the _Vocabulario_ . Photo by Byron Hamann.

FIGURE 10. The open chapel and church at Teposcolula in the Mixteca Alta, originally built in the sixteenth century. Teposcolula was the Dominican monastery where Francisco de Alvarado prepared the Vocabulario . Photo by Byron Hamann.

The year 1593 saw the coordinated publication of two books on the Ã’udzavui language. The first was a grammar, Fray Antonio de los Reyes’ Arte en Lengua Mixteca. The second was a Castilian-to-Dzaha Dzavui vocabulary, Fray Francisco de Alvarado’s Vocabulario en Lengua Misteca. The two books had been written to compliment each other’“Reyes was Alvarado’s mentor. They were intended to help other Dominican missionaries learn the Ã’udzavui language and thus improve their ability to spread ‘the Word.’

These books are but two examples of the dozens of indigenous grammars and vocabularies written by missionaries in the New World. The process of writing grammars and creating dictionaries had both practical and ideological goals. Obviously, the writing of such texts created a means of teaching a language to others. At the same time, however, the writing of such books is implicated in the transformation of Native American life. The following section will situate the process of writing grammars within sixteenth-century European ideas about language and empire. In addition, we will contrast the goals of the Europeans with the uses of this new and exotic form of writing by Ã’udzavui elites, who were already familiar with an entirely different mode of written communication.17

The year 1492 was a momentous one for Iberian politics. In January, Ferdinand and Isabella took control of the city of Granada, the last independent Muslim political stronghold in Iberia (Figure 7). In March, they decreed that all Jews living in their kingdoms had to convert to Catholicism or leave. And in September, the royally-funded Christopher Columbus set sail for the Orient and found instead the Caribbean. 1492 was also the year Elio Antonio de Nebrija (author of the Spanish-Latin Dictionarium mentioned above) presented Queen Isabella with his newly completed grammar of the Castilian language. Modeled on Nebrija’s earlier (and immensely popular) book of Latin grammar, the Gramática de la lengua castellana was the first grammar ever published of a vernacular language. All of these events of 1492 find common ground in an anecdote Nebrija provided in the introduction to his Gramática:

Now, Your Majesty, let me come to the last advantage that you shall gain from my grammar. For the purpose, recall the time when I presented you with a draft of this book earlier in the year in Salamanca. At this time, you asked me to what end such a grammar could possibly serve. Upon this, the Bishop of Ávila interrupted to answer in my stead. What he said was this: ‘Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a new need, the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the need for the language we bring with us.’ My grammar shall serve to impart to them the Castilian tongue, as we have used grammar to teach Latin to our young.18

Although the Bishop of Ávila (Figure 8) did not yet know of the ‘barbarians’ soon to be met in the New World, his words are prophetic, and reveal much about an ideology that joined writing, language, and conquest. Conquered barbarians needed to have their languages replaced by an officially sanctioned version of Castilian. By writing an official grammar, the Bishop saw that Nebrija had created the means by which the colonization of language could be achieved through the standardization of speaking and writing, which would in turn facilitate the dissemination of written laws. The language to be taught was Castilian, which Ferdinand and Isabella had chosen to unite their multilingual empire in the Old World.

By creating a grammar that codified the official form of Castilian, Nebrija provided the means by which the spoken word and the written word could be equated. As Walter Mignolo notes, ‘[a] language whose destiny is to unify a native territory and to subjugate a conquered people could not, in Nebrija’s conception, be left open to the variations of speech…A successful cure for the inconsistencies between sound and letter depended on the grammarian’s success in taming the voice. Otherwise, speakers would pronounce in one way and write in another.”19

Nebrija clearly stated his belief that the letter was nothing more than a ‘trace’ or ‘figure’ by means of which the voice is represented. Although an isomorphic relationship between voice and writing is a fallacious one, consider the ideological ramifications of equating the written and spoken word. By creating an official grammar that supposes a direct relationship between speaking and writing, the spoken voice and written word can theoretically be controlled, ordered, and unified throughout the empire…20 Or can they?

As it happened, Ferdinand and Isabella’s goal of a linguistically unified empire was made impossible by the complexities of the New World. Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, faced with the task of converting thousands of Native Americans, found it more expedient to learn indigenous languages themselves than to expect their new flock to learn Castilian. Rather than printing out copies of Nebrija’s Castilian grammar for indigenous people, grammars of indigenous languages were written for the European friars. Nevertheless, the act of creating grammars and vocabularies of indigenous languages is still implicated in colonization.21 Just as the European conquistadors collected prehispanic curiosities of gold and turquoise mosaic and featherwork and painted codices to be displayed in Old World treasuries and cabinets of curiosity, so too did the European evangelists collect the words and phrases of indigenous people to display, order, and categorize them in vocabularies and grammars.

Attendant on this ‘collection’ and ‘management’ of the spoken indigenous word was the destruction of indigenous means of writing. Codices were burnt, painted ceramics shattered, woven designs banned.22 Pictorial documentation was replaced with alphabetic text. The Spaniards preferred, and later required, alphabetically written documents over pictorial ones in their courts of law.23 Although it is doubtful that the Ã’udzavui elite used the Arte en lengua Mixteca or the Vocabulario en lengua Misteca, they were taught to write using an alphabetic script, and were taught to read using religious tracts written by friars who consulted the works of Reyes and Alvarado. Even if the friars failed to change the way the indigenous elite spoke (although many Ã’udzavui elites did learn Castilian), the friars did change the way the indigenous elite wrote. Over the course of a century, the alphabet replaced the image.

However, control and colonization are only two aspects of the transition from image to alphabet in the New World. And they are not necessarily the most important ones. There is also the creative response by indigenous elites: ‘Ã’udzavui writers adopted the Roman alphabet to defend, maintain, and advance corporate and individual interests in the colonial legal system.’24

Alphabetic writing was important to the Ã’udzavui elite for several reasons. First, the alphabet represented an exotic, foreign, esoteric form of communication, and as such provided a new way for the Ã’udzavui elite to express their power. Even before the conquest, writing was a way for elite men and women to display their status. Elevated prestige was also associated with the possession of ties to foreign cultures. The Ã’udzavui elite might display their worldliness by receiving a Toltec-style nose ornament, or by marrying a princess from a Zapotec community, or by wearing quetzal feathers imported from the Maya far to the south, or by creating a mosaic mask from turquoise brought from the north (Figure 9).25

This appeal of the exotic and the foreign was mapped onto the material culture of Spain. The arrival of the Spaniards did not simply mark the arrival of book-burning and inquisitions. The arrival of the Spaniards marked the arrival of new forms of clothing, new forms of architecture that could create cavernous interior spaces of stone, and a new means of writing. [26]

The act of adopting the foreign writing brought by men from beyond the sea is not so different from acquiring a nose ornament from the foreign peoples who lived in the mountains to the north, or from trading cacao with the traders who came from the jungles to the south (Figure 10).

If the use of alphabetic writing to acquire prestige seems rather ephemeral, alphabetic writing was also used in more concrete ways. The alphabet is an amazing technological innovation. Although the imagery of the Ã’udzavui screenfolds allowed the narratives and poetic structures of epic poetry to be preserved for the interpretation of a performer, alphabetic writing is much better at quotation, at transcribing the contours of specific statements. Alphabetic writing (indeed, phonetic scripts in general) can record the spoken word far more accurately than can a pictorial text. It is hard to convey the novelty of this innovation; comparison with the reproductive power of the photograph or the tape recorder would not be inappropriate. Alphabetic writing was soon adopted by the Ã’udzavui elite for the writing of a host of new categories of document, each recording the spoken word for a different purpose. Wills allowed the preservation of words left behind by the deceased so that they could be reproduced at a later date:

Now that I have served my time on earth I leave matters to my wife doña Lásara de Guzmán, because my same wife will look after the tribute to our lord king…27

Letters allowed the words of the living to travel hundreds of kilometers and then be reproduced by their reader:

My precious fathers, Juan López and all you lords in the yuhuitayu of San Juan Bautista Ticondzo Tiyta, here I am, you son, who has acknowledged your petition and all your words…28

And recorded court documents preserved the testimony of witnesses, testimony that could later be re-produced:

Then she took an axe and struck me on the head. Thus it happened nobles, truly and honestly.29

As twenty-first-century readers, it difficult to ‘see’ the personalities of the elites who wrote the screenfold books we now study. But when reading alphabetic documents such as those quoted above, we are much more consciously aware that a person living centuries ago wrote what we are reading, especially when they speak to us in the first person (‘…here I am, your son…’). The presence of another person that alphabetic writing can construct would have been an incredible novelty for the Ã’udzavui elite reader of the sixteenth century. The ability to record, to see and to speak so exactly with the voices of the dead and of the living was surely an amazing new skill.

A final way that the Ã’udzavui elite responded to alphabetic writing was by using it as a means of maintaining their status in the new colonial order. Knowledge of this new means of record keeping was very important for preserving elite status in the adjudications of the European courts. From the sixteenth century on, the Ã’udzavui were active litigants in colonial courts, taking cases against both Europeans and other Ã’udzavui elites.30 The alphabetic wills or testaments of the Ã’udzavui elite’“which recorded their control over lands, appointed their heirs, and noted the distribution of their property’“were not unlike the codices (which also recorded histories of land ownership and of generational succession). The alphabet was adopted by the Ã’udzavui elite because the purposes for which it could be used were familiar and long- established in Ã’udzavui culture. Indeed, from 1550-1600 Ã’udzavui elites wrote with both image and alphabet, drawing on both techniques of record keeping in order to further their interests in a new political order. They produced documents that were entirely pictorial (like the Codex Selden; see ‘The Codex Selden’ tutorial). They produced documents entirely written with the alphabet (like the 1573 testament of Don Felipe de Saavedra). And they produced documents incorporating both image and alphabet at the same time (like the Lienzo de Zacatepec).31

For the Spaniards, one of the uses of alphabetic writing in the New World was as a means of control. The practices of writing indigenous grammars, of collecting indigenous words in vocabularies, of burning codices, and of replacing pictorial forms of writing with alphabetic ones, were at least partially motivated by goals of colonization and evangelization. For the Ã’udzavui elite, however, alphabetic writing was used to supplement and replace its pictorial antecedents. It represented a revolutionary technology, an exotic prestige good. It was a practice that enabled the Ã’udzavui elite to maintain power over their lands, their subjects, and their privileges, allowing a continuity with the past in a new context of colonial rule.

Text by Byron Hamann

17 This section of the tutorial draws from Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Mignolo 1995).

18 Loosely translated in Mignolo 1995, 38; original text reads

El tercero provecho deste mi trabajo puede ser aquel que, cuando en Salamanca di la muestra de aquesta obra a vuestra real majestad, y me preguntó que para qué podía aprovechar, el mui reverendo padre Obispo de Avila me arrebató la respuesta; y respondiendo por mi dixo que después que vuestra Alteza metiesse debaxo de su iugo muchos pueblos bárbaros y naciones de peregrinas lenguas, y con el vencimiento aquellos ternían necessidad de recebir las leies quel vencedor pone al vencido, y con ellas nuestra lengua, entonces, por esta mi arte, podrían venir en el conocimiento della, como agora nos otros deprendemos el arte de la gramática latina para deprender el latin.

For the complete text, see

19 Mignolo 1995, 42-43.

20 Mignolo 1995, 29-43.

21 Mignolo 1995, 52-65.

22 Mignolo 1995, 69-96.

23 Terraciano 2001, 413; but see also Cummins 1995 and Leibsohn 1995 and 1996 on the importance of images in courts of law.

24 Terraciano 2001, 361.

25 For a general discussion of the prestige associated with the exotic and foreign worldwide, see Helms 1988. For a discussion of the Toltec nose-piercing rite, see Pohl 1994, 83-108. For a discussion of Mixtec-Zapotec political alliance, see Byland Pohl 1994, 182-184.

26 On the adaptation of European material culture by the Mixtec elite, see Spores 1967, 241-244, and the plate 16 of the Codex of Yanhuitlán (Jiménez-Moreno and Mateos Higuera, 1940).

27 Testament of don Gerónimo García y Guzmán, 1672. In Terraciano 2001, 377.

28 Letter written by don Diego de Guzmán to nobles in Atoyaquillo, 1572. In Terraciano 2001, 371.

29 Court testimony of Agustín García, 1581. In Terraciano 2001, 373.

30 Terraciano 2001, 228, 242, 413. For example, already in the 1540s, the nobles of Yanhuitlan were involved in three different civil court cases, involving both Europeans and rival elites. At the same time, nobles from other towns were involved in their own court cases against the European encomendero of Yanhuitlan and his sons; see Hamann 2011.

31 The testament of Don Felipe de Saavedra is cited in Terraciano 2001, 51. The Lienzo of Zacatepec is discussed in Smith 1973, 89-121.