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Reviewed by:
  • The Language Encounter in the Americas
  • Melanie Perreault
The Language Encounter in the Americas. Edited by Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering. New York: Berghahn, 2000.

In their collection of articles, Gray and Fiering seek to address two significant gaps in our understanding of the encounters between Europeans and Native Americans during the colonial period. The first is the language encounter itself, an enormously complicated yet crucial topic given the importance of communication when foreign cultures come into contact. The second chasm is of a more modern origin, the separation of scholars into specialized fields divided by place, time, culture, or methodology, resulting in our own failure to communicate across disciplines. Here, the editors assemble an excellent group of fourteen essays from ethnohistorians, linguists, anthropologists and literary critics that draw together to form an indispensable collection for anyone interested in intercultural communication or the encounter between Europeans and native peoples.

Although the essays vary in specific topic and methodology, the common theme of this book is that while language was a crucial component of the European effort to conquer Native Americans both physically and culturally, it also offered a significant source of resistance against domination. In his introduction to the collection, Edward Gray posits what is essentially the central argument, that “language, as a functional social and political mechanism, was as integral to the overseas extension of European societies as it was to the ongoing efforts of American Indians to resist and adapt to that extension” (10). The authors offer a broad view of language and literacy, including visual images, gestures and body language alongside the more familiar verbal and written communication.

James Axtell’s essay, “Babel of Tongues: Communicating with the Indians in Eastern North America,” serves as a fitting second introduction to the collection, demonstrating the tremendous challenge of communication during the early contact period. Axtell includes examples from Spanish, Dutch, French, and English encounters with various Native American groups, noting that only by solving the language barrier could the visitors learn the vital information necessary not only to find wealth in the New World, but to survive in an unfamiliar environment. For Europeans who viewed their spoken and written language as a key sign of cultural supremacy, converting the native peoples to their way of communicating was a crucial element of the overall conquest of the Americas. Tzvetan Todorov and others have emphasized the use of language as power in a colonial context, but the essays here argue for a more complex reading acknowledging the agency of native peoples during the language encounter.

While many participants in the early meetings used some form of pidgin language to communicate, Ives Goddard argues that these languages were not just simplified forms of Indian or European languages, but were actually a distinct contact language that conferred a significant amount of power upon its Native American creators. Goddard suggests that “by presenting a pidgin model to the Europeans and keeping their real languages largely inaccessible, they controlled the flow of information between themselves and the Europeans” (75). Even European writing could reflect a strong native influence, as Jose Antonio Mazzotti demonstrates through his study of the continuity of Aztec and Inca discursive traditions in histories of the conquest. And when Europeans were successful in teaching Indians vernacular literacy, as Kathleen Bragdon explains English missionaries were able to do in Massachusetts, these efforts actually reinforced the survival of the native language and helped preserve an indigenous social structure in the face of colonial pressure.

Another central theme in several essays is the importance of visual communication, particularly in the absence of reliable written and verbal discourse. As Pauline Moffitt Watts points out in her study of sixteenth-century Mexico, while most people, including Europeans, could not read alphabetic scripts during this period, they were nonetheless literate in the sense of being able to engage in “performative systems of recording and transmitting information,” including gesture and dance (82). Of course, as with any form of communication, visual messages might not have been received in the way they were intended. The Jesuits in New France, Margaret Leahey explains, attempted to use paintings of the Last Judgment to convey power and to introduce...

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