Language and Communication

Language and Communication

Learning your A..B..C’s

Photo from La Pinguica (BJ Schweers)

Since about the year 1550 the government of Spain ordered that its New World citizens be taught Spanish as quickly as possible. This was seen as a vital first step towards integrating them into the economy of the empire, but from the start the religious orders gave that accomplishment a lower priority. They had a different agenda. They would not wait to deliver the religious message in a tongue that the average adult convert might never master. Jesuits in particular where activists. Their leaders directed them to devote whatever time was needed to learn to communicate directly with the unconverted people. By doing so, they became independent of interpreters and they delivered their own messages rather than the possibly corrupted message filtered through an interpreter. The padres could then directly judge the natives receptiveness or their expressions of doubt and resistance. It was a plain case of “knowledge is power” And as a corollary desirable to mission life, the Cochimi who were not fluent in Spanish would be better insulated from casual contact with the most secular of the Hispanic people at the missions (ie, the soldiers).
The leadership of Jesuit missions sought to make quick use of their missionaries language studies. After a padre had toiled among new and linguistically distinct people for a while, he was ordered to create a Grammar and a Glossary. Such works could reduce the time needed to add new missionaries to the field.
However for a newly arrived missionary-in-training, New World language studies were in no way equivalent to learning an additional European language in which every word or sentence construction would have an approximate equivalent in his native speech. The semantic difficulties encountered in Baja California presented a particular severe test. Mainland missionaries evangelized people whose languages belong to major family groups with related structures and logic and often with similar recognizable root words. In Baja California the 3 linguistic groups spoke languages that were not only unrelated to each other, but had no apparent similarities with mainland languages.
One of the Padres, Padre Jacob Begert who served for 17 years amongst the Guaiacol at mission to San Luis Gonzaga commented on the challenge of indoctrinating his people. . .
“They have no words to express whatever is not material and not perceptible to the senses and can neither be seen nor touched. No words to express virtues and vices or qualities of feeling. There are no terms which relate to social human, or rational and civil life. It would be futile to look In a dictionary for examples for the following words:- Life, Death, Weather, Time, Cold, Heat, World, Rain, Reason, Memory, Knowledge, Honor, Decency, Peace, Feeling, Friend, Friendship, Truth, Shame, Faith, Love, Hope, Desire, Hate, Anger, Gratitude, Patience, Meekness, Industry, Virtue, Vice, Beauty, Happiness”.
Any of these absent concepts that was essential in teaching Christian doctrine had to be laboriously synthesized in awkward phrases made up of known word-idea relationships. Not only had these native Californians no means with which to express abstract qualities, they had no way of signifying the abstract form of a tangible object. For example, the translation of my father, your father, his father, and our father, were not capable of being understood. “There is not a single Californian who could understand if I asked the meaning of Father.”

Notably absent are words such as wife, mother, daughter, marriage, as these were not focused upon by the Jesuit padres in their male dominated society.
Bridging fundamental semantic gaps required immense patience, the quality that was already being tested by many aspects of the missionaries demanding vocation.

Bridging the Language Gap

If you go up to an infant and lay your hands over his hands so as to restrain them, the child will look up into your face and maybe focus on your eyes. It takes only a few months until an infant realizes that to gauge what you’re feeling or what’s expected of him, he needs to read that from your facial expression. He’ll be able to discern whether you’re happy, angry, sad and begin to react accordingly.
The psychologists Paul Ekman and Silvan Tomkins developed a methodology of recognizing and cataloging essential facial expressions that can allow practitioners to analyze a persons feelings or moods based on these expressions. How handy would that have been to the early mission padres!
Whenever we experience a basic emotion, that emotion is automatically expressed by the muscles of the face. That response may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second or be detectable only if electronic sensors are attached to the face but it’s always there. Tompkins once began a lecture by stating that the face (amongst other anatomical parts of the body) has, to a large extent, a mind of its own. This doesn’t mean we have no control over our faces. We can use our voluntary muscle system to try to suppress those involuntary responses but often some little part of that suppressed response leaks out creating the notion or the sense that you’re really unhappy even if you were to deny it.
It might have been possible then to have created images of people exhibiting certain emotions, show those images to the Cochimi and have them describe what they saw and catalog the responses. To some extent, even today, we try to do something similar if we are trying to express an emotion to someone who speaks a different language. Do we not mimic the desired emotion on our face to enhance our lack of linguistic expertise? I expect that even in the times of early missions to Baja and elsewhere, the padres would have tried some similar exercise to enable the bridging of the language gap. Nothing is documented that I have found however.