Portuguese missionary grammars in Asia, Africa and Brazil, 1550-1800

Portuguese missionary grammars in Asia, Africa and Brazil, 1550-1800. By OttoZwartjes. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. (Studies in the history of the language sciences 117.) Pp. xiv, 359. ISBN 9789027246080. $165 (Hb).

Reviewed by David D. Robertson, University of Victoria

Otto Zwartjes, a figure central to the recent emergence of a ‘missionary linguistics’, here examines some of the earliest extant Portuguese-language descriptions of (then) newly encountered languages, as well as of Arabic and Hebrew. Geographically themed chapters ask sets of questions about the analysis and presentation of each of several language families by Catholic missionaries, who as a group were well educated in ancient traditions of (Indo-) European grammar writing. Their productions can be challenging to analyze; Z aptly observes that ‘as often happens in missionary linguistics, the boundaries between language [description] and meta-language [analysis] are not always easy to draw’ (232).

Z consistently discovers that while the Greco-Roman tradition colored writers’ understanding of these unrelated languages—a shibboleth concept motivating modern linguists’ neglect of missionary sources, nearly all authors he investigates clearly recognized and grappled with the actual characteristics of the languages they were learning. (This is an understandable result because their intent was to preach and convert, and to train other missionaries to do likewise.) In consequence, these Portuguese documents routinely attempt to expand the Roman alphabet’s capabilities to represent unfamiliar sounds (e.g. the high central vowel in Brazilian languages) and sometimes use existing local orthographies (as for Japanese or Tamil). Another corollary of this often-overlooked attention to linguistic detail is the missionaries’ tendency to innovate grammatical terminology for phenomena never dealt with in ancient Europe (such as ergativity), and for already-recognized structures whose membership and behavior differs across linguistic families (such as prefixes). Such innovations—as the Europeans perceived them—included adopting existing metalinguistic terms such as a Japanese part-of-speech distinction.

Of similar importance are Z’s observations on some of the earliest approaches to the problem of creating Christian terminology in new environments. Because the target audience was non-European, missionaries were compelled to resort to trial and error, comparing the results they achieved from coinages and from Portuguese or Latin loans. Further cross-cultural value in the missionary grammars is evident when they include ethnographic information (cf. 140, 170).

Readers who are multilingual may get the most out of Z’s study, as he extensively quotes historical Portuguese, Latin, French, and Spanish sources, often without English translation. Comparability among the examples he cites is unfortunately inhibited by the infrequency of glossing with modern linguistic terminology. Throughout the book, Z conscientiously and appropriately points out the issue of anachronism. This is the danger of judging older studies according to present-day linguists’ practices, though in a number of passages, he evaluates particularly perceptive missionary analyses as ‘correct’ (e.g. 131, 235, 263). There is no reason not to search these old sources for their treatment of the categories now, for the most part, recognized (as in R. M. W. Dixon’s Basic linguistic theory) as general across the world’s languages, so that it is somewhat surprising when occurrences of numeral classifiers are not labeled as such (132), but overall this is an insightful and eye-opening study of an area of linguistics which will be somewhat ironically new to many readers.