Columbus’ Seemingly Impossible Mission — All In A Foreign Language

Italy - Circa 1991: Stamp Printed In Italy Show Of The DiscoveryAll across the nation, Americans observed Columbus Day – some with a patriotic commemoration of the audacious roots of our nation, others with biting criticism of the damage wrought in the new world by the advent of European colonialism, and some others without much thought at all of the historical implications of a day off of work or school. And, of course, a sizeable part of the nation is taking the chance to party. Columbus Day parades in places such as New York and San Francisco hearken back to the 1860’s, when the holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October was first appropriated by the nation’s numerous Italian-American community as a day to celebrate their heritage.

The reason is quite simple – despite having sailed the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María under the Spanish flag, Christopher Columbus was born and raised in the Republic of Genoa, reminding us that although the various Italian republics, duchies and kingdoms of the time had no official part in European exploration and colonization of the New World, they left their mark on a very personal level. Together with fellow explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazzano, Columbus is part of an important group of Italians who rendered their services to European powers other than those they were born to and are now an integral part of American history and toponymy. Just think of Columbus, Ohio and the homonymous capital of South Carolina, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn along with its less famous cousins in Rhode Island (the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge) and Maryland (the Verrazzano Bridge), and the very name of our continent.

And yet the simple fact that not one of these explorers sailed under an Italian flag indicates that in order to successfully carry out their mission they surely had to learn to communicate with their crew in a foreign language and, perhaps more importantly, with their royal sponsors.

The mulitilingualism of Columbus in particular is very neatly evidenced by the number of names he used. Probably known at birth by the Ligurian name Christoffa Corombo, he would have been Cristoforo Colombo in the rest of Italy and, although he often used the Latinized Christophorus Columbus abroad, he also went by Cristóvão Colombo and ultimatetely Cristóbal Colón. After much travelling around the well-beaten routes of his native Mediterranean and some trips to the British Isles and perhaps as far away as Iceland, the explorer settled in one of the nations most interested in pushing the boundaries of the known world. It was here in Portugal that he met his wife, had a son, and matured his desire to discover what lay beyond the mighty ocean pounding the tiny nation’s coast. During his time in Lisbon, he tried to convince King John II to fund a westward voyage. Met with no success, he pled his case back in Genova and in the rival maritime republic of Venice and even dispatched his brother to King Henry VII of England to seek support. Finally, he realized that the Catholic Monarchs of Spain were his best shot.

The success of Columbus’ engagement with the monarchs – and in particular with Queen Isabella – is historic, but the correspondence from this era gives us ample evidence that he had the typical difficulties of a foreigner in writing the Castilian language. We know that his spoken Spanish wasn’t perfect either. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who most famously authored A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicled some aspects of Columbus’ journeys based on testimony of his father Pedro, who had accompanied him on his second trip in 1493. Las Casas wrote that Columbus was quite obviously “son of another language, as he knows perfectly neither the meaning of words of the Castilian language nor the way to speak it.” However, while Columbus may not have spoken perfect Spanish, he was clearly an effective enough communicator to convince the Spanish monarchs of the validity of his cause – certainly no small feat.

Columbus Day is a holiday that stimulates various reactions. It can be seen as a celebration of the “discovery” of the New World or as an occasion to reflect on the injustices that made up a large part of the colonial practices resulting from the discovery. It can also be seen as a time to remember the contribution of the Italian-American community to the nation’s growth. Perhaps we can remember the tenacity of the Genoese sailor who managed to win support for and carry out a seemingly impossible mission – all in a foreign language.

The Celtic Languages

Before the discovery of America the western edge of Europe seemed like the end of the world. And it was here at the world’s precipices that the Celts, pushed out of their original homes by immigrants arriving from the East, found their final resting place. Today the six Celtic Nations- Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Ireland (Éire), the Isle of Man (Mannin), Scotland (Alba), and Wales (Cymru)- are the last living reminder of a vast Celtic presence which once stretched from the British Isles to the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia (Turkey).

The Celtic people originated in Central Europe (Austria and surrounding areas) during the Iron Age and thereafter began an immigration which took them far and wide. The letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians (the name for the Celts in Anatolia), the Galician dialect in Spain, and the Gauls who fought against Julius Caesar in what today is France are historical reminders of their ubiquitousness.

The Celtic languages once spoken across Europe and Asia Minor- known as “Continental Celtic languages”- are today completely extinct. Only on the rocky western shores of the continent has some form of the language been able to cling on to life. The six “Insular Celtic languages” have managed to carry Celtic culture into the 21st century, albeit with relatively small numbers of speakers.

The Irish (Gaeilge) and Welsh (Cymraeg) languages are the healthiest of the bunch with 1.3 million and 700,000 speakers respectively. Breton (Brezhoneg) and Scottish (Gàidhlig) are in the middle of the group with 200,000 and 60,000 speakers, while Cornish (Kernowek) and Manx (Gaelg) have less speakers than some high schools do students- 3,500 and 1,800 respectively. In all, less than 2 and a half million people worldwide speak a Celtic language- a small number but certainly respectable for a language group that has risked complete eradication by more dominant languages.

Bilingual education programs have been founded to help the languages survive in this new millennium. In the Gaelscoileanna (Ireland), Ysgolion Meithrin (Wales) and Diwan (Brittany) students study the various complexities of their ancestral languages. They learn that while Subject-Verb-Object is the correct word order in English, they must use the order of Verb-Subject-Object when speaking a Celtic tongue. They memorize the 28 letters of the Welsh alphabet- which replace j, k, q, v, x, and z with curious “double-digit” letters ch, dd, ff, ng, ll, ph, rh, and th. They learn to “conjugate” their prepositions; the Breton word for with- gant- will change depending on its object: ganin (with me), ganit (with you), gantañ (with him), ganti (with her), ganimp (with us), ganeoc’h (with you plural), or ganto (with them).

Pronunciation is surely one of the most difficult aspects of learning a Celtic language. Even just sounding out the names on road signs in Wales can be difficult for non-Welsh speakers, especially when it comes to places like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which translates to “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of Llandysilio of the red cave.” Luckily for visitors, this town of 3,000 on the island of Anglesey in the north-western part of the country can also be referred to by its nickname, Llanfair PG, although that initial “double L” is always problematic for “foreigners.” It is what linguists call a “voiceless alveolar lateral fricative,” a sound which does not exist in English, although it is often approximated as “thl” or “chl” (where “ch” is as in the Scottish or Irish word “loch” or the German “ich”).

Luckily not all Celtic words will seem so foreign and difficult to the English speaker; many have entered into our vocabulary. Irish words such as banshee (bean sídhe- woman of the fairies) and galore (go leor- to sufficiency) are commonplace. Scottish has given us trousers (triubhas) and slogan (sluagh-ghairm- army shout). Penguin probably comes from the Welsh pen gwyn (white head).The French word bijou (jewel) derives the Breton bizou (finger ring- biz is the word for finger).

Though spoken by a small number of people, the Celtic languages are still quite alive in the six Celtic nations. And “small” is of course a relative description- in Llanfair PG 76% of the population speaks Welsh fluently, including 97.1% of those aged 10 to 14. At least in this small village with the long name the Celtic languages are far from being cornered into extinction.

The Language Groups of Europe

French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are close cousins. German and Dutch are as well, and they count Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and English among their more distant relatives. Languages can be related just like human beings are. In fact the languages of Europe can be organized into families or language groups. The most famous of these are the Romance languages and the Germanic languages; but there are many others which are less well known.

The Romance languages are designated as such because they trace their origins to the Roman Empire and the language imposed within its dominion. The academic Latin spoken in the Senatus Romanus took on a less rigid form in the everyday use of the Vulgus, the people. Vulgar Latin remained long after the Romans were deposed and evolved very differently across the lands which they once had ruled. Today the most widely-spoken children of Vulgar Latin are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian (in order of number of native speakers). In addition, minor languages such as Catalan and Friulian and dozens of dialects- particularly of Italian and Spanish- have a similar heritage.

While the intrepid armies of Rome had their way in Gallia (France), Hispania (Spain and Portugal), and Dacia (Romania), they encountered significant difficulties in the vast area of Northern Europe which they christened Germania. In fact the vast majority of modern day Germany never fell under Roman rule, as is evidenced by the distinctly non-Romance language spoken in Deutschland today. The very word Deutsch, which derives from the Old High German diutisc (“of the people”), was used to distinguish the language spoken by the Germanic tribes from Latin and her children.

Today German is the flag-bearer of the Germanic family of languages, which is grossly-organized into two branches. The principal West Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and English, but the Frisian, Scots, and Yiddish languages are part of this part of the family as well. The North Germanic languages are often known more simply as Nordic languages, and are spoken in Scandinavia —  Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese are the cardinal representatives.

However, just like with any family, relationships between languages don’t stop at the level of first or second cousins; the more distant linguistic relationships become evident as the genealogical tree is expanded. In reality the Romance and Germanic languages are members of a much broader language family known as Indo-European. Their common ancestor, the hypothetical Proto Indo-European language, may have been spoken around 3700 BC, but this is just a hypothesis based on linguistic reconstruction.

Traces of common Indo-European heritage can be found in the modern Romance and Germanic languages. Consider the aforementioned Latin word vulgus, which has a resemblance to the German word Volk, familiar to us under guise of a car brand- Volkswagen means “car of the people.” And just change the “v” to “f” and you have the English word folk.

Simple substitutions of letters can frequently result in interesting linguistic transformations. The English “f” often becomes “v” in German or “p” in the Romance languages. Father turns into vater (German), and pater (Latin). In the other Romance and Germanic languages we have: père (French), pai (Portuguese/Galician), pare (Catalan), padre (Italian/Spanish), vader (Dutch/Afrikaans), far (Swedish/Norwegian/Danish), and faðir (Icelandic).

The Proto Indo-European language left other children as well. The Balto-Slavic branch of the family includes the Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, and Serbian as well as the Baltic languages of Latvia and Lithuania. The Celtic branch includes languages such as Irish and Welsh, while the Hellenic (Greek), Armenian, and Albanian branches contain essentially one language each.

Finally, the largest branch of the Indo-European family, with more than a billion speakers, explains the “Indo” prefix in the family name. The Indo-Iranian branch includes Hindi, Urdu and Bengali as well as Punjabi, Persian and a host of other South Asian languages.

The first speakers of Proto Indo-European brought their language far and wide- from Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula to the Indian Subcontinent. Today the approximately 439 Indo-European languages and dialects are spoken by more than three billion native speakers, making them by far the most represented language group.

However, there are many other language groups out there, and it isn’t necessary to go as far as China to find them. Europe itself is home to some non Indo-European languages. Do you know any?