In an excellent post over at Greater Blogazonia, Lev Michael unravels a spectacular error which led several eminent specialists of American languages to believe that a West African language named Arda was actually spoken on the Amazon between the Nanay and Marañon Rivers.
Lev’s post is recommended reading (as is his blog Greater Blogazonia in general), so in what follows, I will assume that you’ve at the very least glanced through his fascinating analysis of how this error came to be propagated in quite a few reference works on the indigenous languages of southern America.
It seems very fitting to me that Lev’s excellent piece of sleuthing comes at this point in time, exactly 350 years after the first appearance of José de Najera’s Doctrina Christiana y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda, the mysterious manuscript that is the pivot on which all of this hinges. So go read his exposé and after that, feel free to check back here for some more background information.
(from Labouret & Rivet 1929)
As it happens, I laid hands on a copy of that famed Doctrina Christiana a few years ago, while authoring the featured article Gbe languages for a certain well-known online encyclopedia. The document, produced in 1658 by a Spanish priest named José de Najera, is a translation of a Spanish catechism into the language that was then spoken at Allada, a kingdom in the Bight of Benin.1 The name of the language and the locality have come to us in various forms — Arda, Ardra, Allada, Alada, Arder — of which Allada is the most common variant (see Law 1997).
Meanwhile, the variant ‘Arda’ took on a whole life on its own as it passed for a mysterious Amazonian language on which nothing was known whatsoever except for this one manuscript, of which there moreover happened to be just one precious copy (for the full story, see Greater Blogazonia). Finally, after many years of being taken for an Amazonian language, Labouret & Rivet, on the authority of Maurice Delafosse, correctly identified ‘Arda’ as one of the Gbe languages of West Africa, probably Gen [gẽ].
Labouret & Rivet’s study includes a word list and an interlinear translation of part of the document, as well as the full edition in Spanish and ‘Arda’. They also note that “la langue ge avait été souvent torturée par les religieux espagnols et leurs informateurs pour composer la Doctrina Christiana” (p. 39), i.e. ‘the Ge language was considerably tortured by the religious Spaniards and their informants in composing the Doctrina Christiana‘. Similarly, Enoch Aboh (p.c.) comments that the language is recognizably Gbe, though in a very mangled form. In other words, it is in all likelihood not a good source on either the grammatical constructions or the lexicon of seventeenth century Gengbe. Still, just as I said about the first traces of Siwu (which unfortunately do not date back nearly as far), something is infinitely better than nothing! This is quite simply the very best source we’ve got.
Ah well. In retrospect, I cannot think of a more apt title for a manuscript of such mysterious provenance than the original one, given to it by its author: Doctrina Christiana – y explicacion de sus misterios …
- Labouret, Henri and Paul Rivet. 1929. Le Royaume d’Arda et son Évangélisation au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.
- Law, Robin. 1997. The kingdom of Allada. Leiden: Research School CNWS School of Asian African and Amerindian Studies.
- de Najera, José. 1658. Doctrina christiana y explicación de sus misterios en nuestro idioma español y en lengua arda. Ms.
- More or less corresponding to Alada in present-day southern Benin ↩