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Language and Communication in the Spanish Conquest of America



This article was originally presented as part of The 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference. You can read the article along with two commentaries and discussion at One of the central questions arising from the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians concerns language and communication. An encounter between two peoples that had not known about the other’s existence – an encounter that scholars have long characterized as a clash of cultures – raises the question of how they managed to communicate with each other. Over 25 years ago, Tzvetan Todorov put forth one way of linking communication and conquest when he argued that Europeans conquered the Amerindians through their superior ability to understand ‘the Other’. More generally, he contended that Western Europeans had a general ‘superiority in human communication’, demonstrated by the fact that they used alphabetic writing (Todorov 251). For Todorov, Europeans displayed ‘remarkable qualities of flexibility and improvisation’, characteristics that allowed them to be more effective in imposing their ways of life on others (Todorov 247–8). They were so successful, Todorov argues, that in the centuries following the initial encounter between Europeans and Amerindians, Europeans were able to gradually assimilate the Other and eliminate alterity. While Todorov’s 1982 work initially received much acclaim, since then several scholars have challenged (directly and indirectly) his claims by subjecting the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians to further study. Scholars have questioned the extent to which these groups were able to communicate with one another, and in some cases, they have questioned what Spanish conquest, authority, and domination actually mean when Spaniards and Indians had such difficulty communicating their ideas to one another. By posing these questions, scholars of varied backgrounds in anthropology, history, religion, and art history have fundamentally reshaped the field of colonial Latin American studies. While they have shown that barriers impeded communication and understanding between Amerindians and Europeans, scholars have also demonstrated that both groups made important contributions to new cultural and religious syntheses. This article will explore a range of scholarly works over the past 25 years that responds to the question of how language and communication are interrelated with conquest.

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