Teaching Christianity in Indigenous Languages: Effort and Outcome

Very soon after the Spaniards had arrived in the Americas, they started their missionary enterprise, the origin of which in many cases certainly was the true belief in the urgency to save the indigenous peoples’ souls from the Devil, but which also served excellently to justify conquest and colonisation.

Training priests so that they would learn the Amerindian languages became one of the central Spanish efforts in colonising the Americas. Straightforward as this sounds, it was extremely difficult to do. 

The languages the Spaniards found were varied and completely different from the Indo-European ones they were familiar with. And moreover, there were hardly any frameworks other than Latin which could be used for linguistically describing a language. Thus the missionaries who worked in the Americas also became linguists and carried out their descriptive work embedded in pragmatic-sociolinguistic and theoretical linguistic challenges. University Chairs were established as well as professorships in the religious orders.

Among the first texts written in indigenous languages was the Christian doctrine in form of catechisms, complemented by sermons and confessionaries. These had, of course, precursors in Europe, but it was a relatively new objective to fix the principles of faith in the native language (even in Spain).

(Reading: Missionary Linguistics / Lingüística misionera 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009Salazar Sáenz 1990 Quechua-SprachmaterialienDedenbach-Salazar Sáenz & Crickmay (eds.) 1999 La lengua de la cristianización.)