Spanish men, indigenous language, and informal interpreters in postcontact Mexico

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Abstract

In the 1570s the alcalde of Motines (located in the coastal mountains of modern day Michoacán) was denounced to the Inquisition for having told the indigenous residents that they did not need to spend money decorating their churches and for engaging in other heresies, including Calvinism. His defense was simple; he claimed that he and his secretary could only speak standardized Nahuatl, and since the natives of Motines did not speak this dialect of Nahuatl they misinterpreted his statements. This is a unique case in which it is clear that several Spaniards, living soon after the conquest, spoke Nahuatl as a language of commerce and communication in order to operate among a diverse group of indigenous ethnicities. This article investigates the use of Nahuatl among nonindigenous persons who were not a part of early evangelization. Drawing on dozens of documents, this article examines how Nahuatl was used as a lingua franca among this diverse group of individuals living on the frontier. In these cases, like the one from Motines, Nahuatl served as the common language that connected various ethnic groups in the area. An analysis of quotidian Nahuatl use among secular individuals demonstrates the diffusion of Nahuatl as a dominant language in central Mexico. Similarly, comparing this process to what Solange Alberro has described for the acculturation of criollos, this article suggests that the use of Nahuatl among Spaniards represents part of the process of the "Indianization" of the dominant Creole culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)739-764
Number of pages26
JournalEthnohistory
Volume59
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2012

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Anthropology

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