Conference Paper: Language and Communication in the Spanish Conquest of America

19 10 2009

Daniel Wasserman Soler
(University of Virginia)

To read this article and its associated commentary for free just click on the PDF links below.

Wasserman Soler PDF

Commentary 1 PDF – Patricia Seed (University of California, Irvine)

Commentary 2 PDF – Camilla Townsend (Rutgers)

In order to post your comment and response, please use the comments box at the bottom of this post. All comments are moderated and will appear shortly after they are submitted.



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 twenty-five 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. They have shown that essential barriers impeded communication and understanding between Amerindians and Europeans, that both groups contributed to new cultural and religious syntheses, and that we ought to carefully reconsider the concept of an all-encompassing European conquest of the Amerindians. This paper will explore a range of scholarly works over the past twenty-five years that responds to the question of how language and communication are interrelated with conquest.



3 responses

25 10 2009
Scott Noegel

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your paper, which offers a useful sociology of knowledge on the subject of communication between conquerers and the conquered. As someone situated far from your discipline, can you tell me how much work on this topic is being done by Native American scholars? Also, I find your conclusion a healthy corrective to the natural tendency we all have as scholars to conclude with the “doxologies” of our own disciplines.



27 10 2009
Daniel I. Wasserman Soler

In their commentaries to this paper, Patricia Seed and Camilla Townsend agree that scholars of colonial Latin America have discarded Todorov’s notion that Native Americans employed modes of communication inferior to those of Europeans. Despite scholars’ general disagreement with Todorov on this point, his assertion that communication is central to understanding the conquest/encounter has continued to inform recent work on colonial Latin America. Indeed, as Seed notes, “Todorov’s work had the effect of shifting the exchange of signs from a ‘fact’ to a problematic of communication.” Townsend adds, “…the questions [Todorov] framed regarding communication and language as tools of conquest remain an overwhelmingly important element of ongoing work.”

While explicit claims of European superiority are a thing of the past in scholarship on colonial Latin America (and perhaps, more generally, in work on European colonialism), current researchers in the field have not shed all traces of ideology. Rather, the best recent work on colonial Latin America, despite the strengths discussed in this paper, has put forth its own agenda, attempting to place Native Americans and Europeans on more of an equal level than previous scholarship had shown. By paying more attention to Native American communities of the past, recent scholars have revised the traditional paradigm of powerful Europeans conquering and “civilizing” Native Americans. As the paper discussed here demonstrates, this generation of scholars has shown Native Americans to have been active and effective communicators who contributed in substantial ways to the new societies that emerged in the Americas after 1492. Ideology aside, this body of scholarship has contributed in both crucial and impressive ways to current knowledge on colonial Latin America.

This worthy focus on giving a voice to Native Americans, however, has revealed another important gap (or a gorge, perhaps) in the scholarship produced over the last twenty years. An overwhelming amount of the sources that have made recent research possible exist because of the extensive bureaucracy established by Spaniards, often in collaboration with Native Americans. The part played by the Spaniards themselves (e.g., inquisitors, missionaries, governors, bureaucrats), however, has received little attention over the past twenty years, as a result of the effort to study the significance of Native Americans in New World societies. Very recently, however, young scholars have begun to demonstrate an interest in examining the hierarchy that played a crucial part in producing colonial situations. See, for example, Martin Austin Nesvig, Ideology and Inquisition: The World of the Censors in Early Mexico (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Kimberly Lynn Hossain, “Arbiters of Faith, Agents of Empire: Spanish Inquisitors and their Careers, 1550–1650” (PhD Diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2006); and Kimberly Lynn Hossain, “Was Adam the First Heretic? Luis de Páramo, Diego de Simancas, and the Origins of Inquisitorial Practice” Archive for Reformation History/Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 97 (2006).

Students of colonial Latin America are now more engaged than ever in the study of Native American languages, and thus, the years to come have the potential to bring forth yet even more important discoveries about New World societies. Given the interests of some young scholars, however, it seems likely that these advances in knowledge about Native American cultures will be made alongside a new generation of scholarship examining Spanish colonial institutions.

27 10 2009
Daniel I. Wasserman Soler

Dear Scott (if I may),

Thank you very much for your response. Your question is a good one.

Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the representation of people of Native American descent working in this field, but, from my knowledge of the scholarship, I would posit that it is low. Of course, I cannot make a decisive statement here. The question of how many scholars of Native American descent work on the conquest/encounter period may also be a slippery one, depending upon how broadly one measures Native American descent.

A colleague of mine, to whom I posed your question, noted that we ought to consider what actually constitutes “working on” the field of conquest/encounter in the Americas. He asks whether the Zapatistas in Mexico’s Chiapas region are “working on” our knowledge of the conquest/encounter. See, for example, the “Primera Declaración de la Selva Lacandona.” One may also suggest that recent efforts to create an indigenous university in Ecuador occupy an important place in this discussion. See Norman E. Whitten, ed., Millennial Ecuador: critical essays on cultural transformations and social dynamics (University of Iowa Press, 2003), pp. 231-6.

You may be interested to know that in the U.S., the leading figures in the field of colonial Latin American history have *on the whole* not been individuals who claim Latino or Hispanic heritage. The number of Latino/Hispanic historians in this field seems (from recent publications), however, to be on the rise. The percentage of Latino/Hispanic scholars in academia in the U.S., however, remains low when compared to the percentage of the population that claims Latino or Hispanic heritage.

I can also tell you that the study of Native American languages is steadily on the rise among scholars of colonial Latin America. A generation or two ago, historians of colonial Latin American with facility in a Native American language were the exception rather than the rule, but that is quickly changing.

Thank you again for your response.

Best wishes to you in your future work,
Danny Wasserman

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