You are here

American Philological Associations: Latin and Amerindian Languages

Andrew Laird

Brown University

‘A language, your Majesty, so polished and rich, regulated and enclosed within the rules and precepts of Latin as this is, is not barbarous, that is to say (according to Quintilian and other Latin sources) it is not full of barbarisms, but it is clean and refined’.

That is how the author of the first grammar of Quechua described the language of Peru and the Andes to Philip II of Spain (Santo Tomás 1560). Colonial attitudes to Quechua and other American tongues raise many broader historical concerns (Errington 2010; Hanks 2010), but the present paper aims to show how early European engagements with Amerindian languages in the 1500s can offer some refreshing perspectives on Latin grammar: as a theory and model [Part 1], as a method and practice [Part 2], and, by way of conclusion, as a potentially dynamic field of historical study [Part 3]. 

Part 1 considers the extent to which initial impressions of unfamiliar languages in the New World were shaped by ancient conceptions of grammar, which was often identified with Latin itself (Quintilian Inst. 1.4-8; Isidore, Orig. 1; Gallardo 1866).

Part 2 will show how closer knowledge of American languages led to categories of Latin grammar and specific precepts of Roman grammarians and rhetoricians (Quintilian 1.4; Priscian, Institutiones) being questioned, developed, abandoned or sometimes ingeniously transformed (Percival 2004, Zwartjes 2000). Examples of such advances in the understanding of language can be illustrated from early missionary artes, or manuals, of Mexican languages (Olmos 1547, Gilberti 1558, 1559).

Part 3. The centrality of grammar in ancient Roman education endured into the medieval and early modern periods, and long remained the universal foundation for a classical training (Marrou 1948; Archibald, Brockliss and Gnoza 2015). The repetitive study of Latin declensions which took its toll on generations of schoolchildren and students had few palpable benefits in early modern Europe (Waquet 2001). But in the Americas, detailed knowledge of classical grammar enabled missionary linguists to systematize, and, very rapidly, to learn, and even to preserve a large number of native languages. The discipline of grammar which had hitherto been useless (other than for learning Latin) now had a vital practical application.

The history of Latin grammar, though overlooked in studies of reception and the classical tradition, has many important ethnolinguistic and intercultural ramifications which remain to be explored in full.

Session/Panel Title

Rome and the Americas

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy