Of the diversity of languages found in these Indies, islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea.

Translated by Eliana Blam ‘22

A gentleman named Pedro Mexía, a native of Seville, of noble progeny and a learned man, who is presently living, says in chapter XXV of the first part of his treatise, Silva de varia lección [A Miscellany of Various Lessons] how at the beginning of the world all men spoke one language and what that language was, why the confusion of languages came about, how and where the tower of Babylon was built, asking what language two children would speak if they were raised without having been spoken to. He offers sufficient and true reasons for everything he argues, citing sanctioned authorities from the Holy Scripture and from other wise and credible authors. I have clearly seen what is said on this subject in the book of Genesis,[1] which he cites, and also what Isidore in his Ethimologias reminds us of when he says: “Linguaram diversitas exorta est in oedificatione turris, post diluvium.”[2] This sanctified doctor affirms that all men spoke one single language before the construction of that tower of Babylon, and many authors claim the number of languages through which the men who worked on the construction of the tower were divided was seventy-two, and from there on those seventy-two languages spread through as many territories or lordships. Saint Augustine says that the first language before the flood was Hebrew, which remained as one among a number of others when the language division took place, and it remained among Heber’s descendants, called Hebrews.[3]

Let us leave all this aside: because for the purposes of this chapter I am only concerned with this number of seventy-two languages, from which it must be acknowledged that all those languages presently spoken in the world originated. These languages seem to me uncountable, as evident by the ease with which Isidore goes about discussing and specifying them in book IX of his Ethimologias, where he mentions Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Attic Greek, Doric, Ionian, Aeolian, Prisca, Syrian and Chaldean (these last two are consonant with Hebrew, having come from neighboring regions). This scholar further states[4] that out of these seventy-two languages all the provinces and lands expanded and grew, those of the Hebrews as those of the Chaldeans, Bactrians, Scythes, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Africans, Phoenicians and Sidonians, etc. So it seems to me that the number of languages is larger than seventy-two. But, given that to set aside or reject my opinion (as the number currently in the world is greater and uncountable) one would have to say that all these languages that exceed or are more than seventy-two are offshoots or parts that grow or branch out of them. So just as the Italian and Castilian languages developed and grew out of the Latin language, what can we say of the languages found in our Indies, which are so differentiated and separate from each other that there are Indians of a province who do not understand those from another, just as a Biscayan could not understand a German or an Arab? It is a wonderful thing that in a space of a day’s journey of five or six leagues, and with people living so near to one another, the Indians do not understand each other. You, reader, will be fully informed through this treatise and General History of the Indies, and will come to see how, among countless societies of these Indians, the differences in their languages has been the main weapon through which the Spaniards have dominated these parts, together with the disagreements that existed between the natives themselves. Because otherwise it would have been an impossible thing, in my view, to be able to subjugate and bring to obedience and to unity within the Christian Republic such a large part of these societies in regions so distant from our Europe. The first language that the first Admiral and discoverer of these lands, Don Christopher Columbus, came across was that of the island of the Lucayos, the second was that of the island of Cuba, and the third that of this island of Haiti or Hispaniola, none of which understood the other. This was in the first and second voyages that the Admiral made to these Indies. Later, when he discovered the great coast of the Mainland and of the Caribs, he encountered and saw many other very different languages, as well as those of the archer Caribs and other nations to be found there, different in their languages, rites, ceremonies, beliefs and customs, in so many ways and so many parts that what has been seen to the present moment is immeasurable, and what remains to be seen and known will take a very long time, so that those to come will have much more to write about than what I have been able to understand of these matters. In the language of Cuena, as they call it, which is a great province, there are many differences in vocabulary; I have also seen in the Mainland the Coyba tongue, the Burica, Paris, Veragua, Chondales, Nicaragua, Chorotegas, Oroçi, Orotiña, Guetares, Maribios, and many other tongues that I will stop naming to avoid prolixity, and also because they will be found more extensively described in further writings. These I think are separate from those seventy-two (since I think some of them began earlier). I also do not doubt that, from the tower of Babylon until now, many other languages have been invented and added by men, and that this invention is natural to them, as Pedro Mexía says in the cited chapter of his Silva, for it seems children use new vocabulary to ask for things and impart significance on some things; we even see it among rustic people, where villagers seem to use a different language from that of dwellers of the cities that hold sway over them. For if the domestic rustic in his lack of sophistication, and children in their innocence, and even the mute with their signs, strive to be understood by a new or separate and different language, one could think that those who have ability and those who God made of high ingenuity would have constituted new ways of speaking, to be understood among their own people, so that strangers or their adversaries would not understand them; new signs, characters, and words have resulted from this, to help them avoid their enemies’ dangers and threats, or to conquer and lord over them.

And because the malice of humans is so great and the world so full of malice and the malicious, one can believe that the devil, who has been lord over these unfaithful people for so many centuries, reveling in so many souls, has taught them, with time, these diversities of languages, finding such a manifest predisposition and open willingness to be deceived, for these people have been so lacking in defenses until our time, when God has sought to save them with the fire of his sacred faith, through which we pledge to increase the adherents to the Christian religion. And this is enough discussion of the languages of the Indians for the moment, having touched upon them in general terms, because as I wanted to signify before, this matter will be found more punctually in this General History of the Indies in its appropriate context and parts.


[1] Genesis, Chapter XI.

[2] Isidorus, Ethimologias, Book IX, Chapter I. De linguis gentium.

[3] St. Augustin, De civitate Dei Book XVI, Chapter 11.

[4] LXXII totidemque linguae per terras esse coeperunt, quaeque, crescendo, provincias et insulas impleverunt. Ethim, Book IX, Chapter II.