The mysteries of Christian doctrine, or, How an African language was mistaken for an Amazonian one

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.

Doctrina Christiana - Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda

The first page of the 1658 Doctrina Christiana – Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda
(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


  1. Labouret, Henri and Paul Rivet. 1929. Le Royaume d’Arda et son Évangélisation au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.
  2. Law, Robin. 1997. The kingdom of Allada. Leiden: Research School CNWS School of Asian African and Amerindian Studies.
  3. de Najera, José. 1658. Doctrina christiana y explicación de sus misterios en nuestro idioma español y en lengua arda. Ms.


  1. More or less corresponding to Alada in present-day southern Benin[]

4 thoughts on “The mysteries of Christian doctrine, or, How an African language was mistaken for an Amazonian one”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Well, I suppose it figures that *you* already know about the Arda story ;). And I had no idea that you had written about Gbe languages already for Wikipedia. Very cool. And thanks for the mention!

  2. I couldn’t find a place to post this on the site, so it may be in the wrong place, but I need translations back into the original languages for 9 African proverbs. They are:
    “The heart is not a knee that can be bent.” Senegal

    Having a good discussion is like having riches. Kenya

    Accomplishment of purpose is better than making a profit.” Hausa

    You can outdistance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you. Rwanda

    The family is like the forest, if you are outside, it is dense. If you are inside you can see that each tree has its own position.” Akan

    “It is the human being who counts: call on gold, gold does not respond; call on clothes, clothes do not respond; it is the human being who counts.” West Africa

    When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion.” Ethiopia

    “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” Liberia

    “A friend is someone you share the path with.” Nilotic (?Kenya)
    I wonder if you might be able to help me with this.
    Thank you,
    Janet Randall
    Linguistics Program, Northeastern U.

  3. Hi Janet,

    Where do these come from and what do you need the original versions for? The Akan ones might be findable (the ‘West African’ one I know to be an Akan proverb), as there are published collections of Akan proverbs. For the other ones, you list countries of origin in which lots of different languages are spoken, so the ‘original languages’ are going to be difficult to trace (except Rwanda, where Kinyarwanda might be our best bet).

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