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Nahuatl as it was: an exploration of the great dictionary of Alonso de Molina

This is the third post in a new monthly series called Excavating Archaeology, which will feature selections and research from the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related materials, housed in the Geography and Map Division & Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress.

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring profound changes in the conditions of human existence.  –Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Title page of Molina's dictionary

Title page of the 1555 Aqui comiença vn vocabulario enla lengua castellana y mexicana, by Alonso de Molina. Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress.

In 1555 the first dictionary of an indigenous language from the Americas was published in Mexico City. The volume entitled, Aqui comiença vn vocabulario enla lengua castellana y mexicana, was by Alonso de Molina (1514–79), a Franciscan cleric and grammarian. In it Molina outlined the basic structure of Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztecan language spoken in central Mexico since at least the tenth century, and the lingua franca at the time of the arrival of the Europeans in 1519.

The book was published by Giovanni Paoli (1500 ? – 1561), who on June 12, 1539, had set sail from the Spanish city of Seville with a cargo that would change the face of the Americas forever. On board with Paoli came all the materials and knowledge necessary to start publishing books in the Americas. Perhaps better known by his Spanish name, Juan Pablos, he had been sent to the New World by Juan Cromberger (d. 1540), one of the most successful printers in Spain, to establish the first printing press on the new continent. Juan Pablos arrived in Mexico City in October 1539 and quickly set up a press that would become known as the Casa de Juan Cromberger. Between Pablos’ arrival and his death in 1561, he published 37 titles, only some of which survive to the present day.

During the early parts of the sixteenth century, Indigenous languages began to be more widely studied and read, quickly producing such printed masterworks as the aforementioned  Aquí comiença un vocabulario en la lengua castellana y mexicana, and Molina’s great masterwork the Vocabulario en lengua castellana y Mexicana, a bilingual dictionary of Spanish and Nahuatl, published in 1571.

The dictionary from 1571 was a work that took many years to assemble and contains more than 23,600 entries divided into two sections; a Spanish-to-Nahuatl part consisting of 118 folios, while the more often used Nahuatl-to-Spanish section is made up of 162 folios. Molina, although originally from Extremadura, Spain, came to the Americas as a young child, and during his youth played with and became friends with the Nahautl speaking children that surrounded him, learning the language and its complicated polysynthetic grammar from them.

Title page from the Nahuatl to Spanish section of Molina’s great 1571 masterwork the Vocabulario en lengua castellana y Mexicana. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, Library of Congress

The dictionary itself is a masterwork of lexicography and is critical for scholars, linguists, and archaeologists studying both the history of the language and how its was spoken and understood in the sixteenth century. Molina’s actual techniques for collecting his information are not well understood, nor is how he kept track of all the linguistic complexities he was dealing with and recording.

The dictionary is very different from what most readers would be familiar with and contains a wealth of idiomatic expressions, treating the grammatical structure of Nahuatl in original ways. For example, the word Eua, which in Nahuatl means “to lift something,” has many entries outlining its various uses and listing the nuanced idiomatic meanings of the word.

Page from Molina’s Vocabulario showing the entries and meanings of the various forms of the verb Eua. Translations by author.

The most important feature of Molina’s entries are the way he cited verbs. As above, with the verb Eua, he first cites the present tense “root” of the verb, after which come all the various inflected forms with prefixes and suffixes that change its tense and transitivity. This way of looking at the language is a very powerful tool for scholars trying to understand early Nahuatl manuscripts relating to the history of Nahuatl culture, both before and after the coming of Europeans. Molina’s entries show how widely the meaning of a word ranges across idioms and records the uses of words not frequently found in typical dictionaries.

Early dictionaries, glossaries, and grammars like Molina’s masterpiece, and others found in the Jay I. Kislak Collection, along with those still being created today for endangered languages across the world, are sources for trying to understand the relationship and evolution of linguistic families, and are some of the most far-reaching tools for preserving the history of these cultures and their languages for the future.

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