Columbus’s Catalan.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera of the University of Puerto Rico has a brief but interesting Lingua Franca piece on the national origins of Christopher Columbus:

While conventionally regarded as Genovese, his language had resonances of Catalan.

Columbus signed documents (and was referred to in state records) as “Colom” — a Catalan last name meaning “dove.” There is no record of him writing in the Genoese dialect or Italian, even in letters sent to Genoa. Save one letter in Catalan, his epistles are in Latin or Spanish, some have marginal notes in Hebrew. The conquest chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas noted that Colom “doesn’t grasp the entirety of the words in Castilian” — and much of his Spanish was colored by false cognates, idiomatic interference, and crosslingual appropriations from Catalan […]

Lluís de Yzaguirre, a professor at the Institute of Applied Linguistics at Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, studied Colom’s Spanish with a forensic linguistics algorithm that applies lexical mistakes to decipher the native language of the writer. He found Colom’s hypercorrections of “b” and “v,” as well as “o” and “u” in Spanish were typical of a Catalan speaker.

Colom’s library had books in Catalan, and he named the island of Montserrat for a monastery near Barcelona.

He was also surrounded by Catalonians. […]

There’s more at the link, including an impressive-looking table of Catalanisms in Columbus’s Spanish writings. I don’t know if this is old hat, but I hadn’t been aware of it.

Comments

  1. Wikipedia has a whole article on different origin theories for Columbus. I must say that anything except the traditional Genovese origin seem pretty shaky.

  2. Greg Pandatshang says:

    tangential: https://www.academia.edu/3815281/Etymology_of_català_Catalunya

    Carrasquer Vidal criticises all standing proposals for the etymology of “Catalunya” (for one thing, apparently anything Romance with a -t- would regularly develop into -d-), and proposes an Arabic etymology from qattāl (قتالو), pl. qattālūn (قتالون), “killer”. The idea is that the term would originally have been derogatory, applied to bandits and raiders along the Christian-Muslim border, then later reappropriated as a self-description. This would be comparable to the development of the name of the Almogavars. Carrasquer Vidal points out that in the earliest attestations, “Catalan” referred to the military élite, while the peasants were termed “Goths”.

    I wonder if any LHatters can comment on the plausibility of this as an Arabic term. qattāl does not seem to be the most common Arabic word for “killer”, and Carrasquer Vidal’s explanation of why this word would be used in that sense seems a bit convoluted.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting; I had no idea.

    Lluís de Yzaguirre

    Best pan-Iberian name ever.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Catalan mistakes in his Castilian don’t mean Catalan was his native language, only that he learned it before (or more substantially than) Castilian. People mix up their foreign languages all the time.

    What’s perhaps most interesting is the Hebrew.

  5. I leap in here with pure hearsay.
    Obviously, here in Catalonia, everyone just assumes Colom was Catalan…
    On the origin of “catalonia”–I can only say that there was an elderly gentleman, now dead, we knew in the ’80s who was a font of obscure information, who once informed us that he had seen documents that demonstrated that the original word for the Catalans was “lacatans” [if he had a supposed meaning for that, I don’t know it–I’ll ask my husband if he remembers] & that the first two consonants just got switched around over centuries. & he was speaking about “Iberian” times–pre-Roman. I know this is not very helpful; but it may suggest an avenue of research to someone with more resources.

  6. I’ve found it frustratingly hard to find serious academic treatments of the Columbus origin dispute – just a bunch of researchers confidently announcing to the popular press that he was the one thing or the other thing. I twice tried asking /r/askhistorians about it, trying to get some sense of the consensus in the field, but got no responses either time.

  7. The REAL story of the origins of Colo/um[bus] (or more properly Go-Lum-Bus):
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_misc.php?sid=9

  8. Columbus’ real last name was Marlowe.

  9. I’ve found it frustratingly hard to find serious academic treatments of the Columbus origin dispute – just a bunch of researchers confidently announcing to the popular press that he was the one thing or the other thing. I twice tried asking /r/askhistorians about it, trying to get some sense of the consensus in the field, but got no responses either time.

    Interesting (and dispiriting). I’ve thought more than once it was odd there was so little consensus on this, and just chalked it up to clashing nationalisms.

  10. I remember reading somewhere that “Genoese” was a standard term at the court of Castile & Aragon for foreign merchants generally, just as “Frank” became a general term for Westerners, then merchants, then foreigners generally as the term moved further and further east.

  11. And немец [nemets], ‘German,’ was a general term for Westerners in early modern Russia.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Wasn’t Catalan the (or a) lingua franca of the western Mediterranean at one stage? Aragon certainly spread as far as Corsica/Sardinia and the southern part of mainland Italy in the 15th century.

    I don’t see that Columbus would have had to *be* Catalan in order to hear and speak Catalan before he met the Castilian of central Spain and the Atlantic coast.

  13. True, but it’s interesting that “There is no record of him writing in the Genoese dialect or Italian, even in letters sent to Genoa.”

  14. The Italian Socialist Party was founded in Genoa in 1892, partly because rail companies were offering discounts to visitors wanting to attend the four hundredth anniversary celebrations of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. This made it a cheap destination for the socialist delegates.

  15. I have two things to say on this matter: Catalan, called Alguerès, is spoken to this day in Sardinia. Who knows if it was also spoken in Genoa? With trade routes and merchants of different nationalities traveling the Mediterranean, I don’t see why Catalan could have been one of the languages that Columbus was familiar with.

    I don’t know the particular history of Catalan, but I do know that in the Middle Ages, Spanish and Portuguese were much more similar to each other than they are now. In fact, the Song of My Cid was written in what was called Romance. So, I would conjecture that maybe this language called Catalan was identified as such, but perhaps not as distinct from other Romance languages as it is today.

  16. January First-of-May says:

    And немец [nemets], ‘German,’ was a general term for Westerners in early modern Russia.

    I highly suspect it was the other way around – i.e. that it started out as a general term for Westerners and then became limited to Germans only.

    (The etymological meaning, incidentally, is “mute”.)

  17. ə de vivre says:

    I know nothing about the debate beyond the linked article and a brief perusal of Wikipedia, but it seems like the answers to the question “was Christopher Columbus Catalan?” are collapsing the related (but not identical) questions: “What was his first language?”, “Where was he born?”, “How did he conceive of his identity?”, “How did his contemporaries conceive of his identity”, and “What contemporary ethno-national identity does he fit into best?”. Though maybe as his enslaving, genocidal legacy becomes more accepted, there will be fewer attempts to claim him as a co-national.

  18. (The etymological meaning, incidentally, is “mute”.)

    If we talk, we get a name making fun of how we sound. (“The bar-bar guys.”) If we don’t talk, we get called “mute.” We foreigners can’t catch a break.

  19. And then they steer us to the inn run by their thieving brother-in-law.

  20. Though maybe as his enslaving, genocidal legacy becomes more accepted, there will be fewer attempts to claim him as a co-national.

    Then the argument just switches to attempting to prove he belongs to someone else.

  21. The “qattaaluun” etymology strikes me as very unlikely, if only because the -uun nominative plural is exclusive to Classical Arabic: all the dialects without exception (including Andalusia, as far as we can tell) have lost case marking on nouns, and in the process generalized the accusative plural -iin. It would be astonishing if a team of Catalan raiders were literate enough in Arabic, and pretentious enough into the bargain, to force their neighbors to refer to them in the obsolete nominative plural.

  22. I am not sure things with Russian word немец is so simple. I guess Russians always separated from other Western foreigners Poles and Lithuanians (and probably, I should say Moscovites here, because a good deal of what was called Lithuanians became Russians when Russia sufficiently expanded). There was a special word for Italians (фряги/fr’agi, corruption of Franks). All other Westerners were немцы, but they almost inevitably were Germans of one kind or another. I mean, you might think that Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, Austrians, and Swiss cannot be lumped together with Germans in 16th/17th century, but that’s good enough for me. People from Low Countries, of course, is too much even for me, but still it is not that bad.

  23. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Those Catalans, I tell ya. First, they go forcing classicizing archaisms on hapless Andalusian peasants, then they discover the New World, then they go and demand homage from hapless George Orwell. I hope not to see any more drama coming those quarters for a good long while.

  24. And don’t forget their numbers. I mean, who cares how many trees there are with exactly 1421 leaves?

  25. немец

    Németh is a Hungarian surname. In Hungarian, német means “German” (the word has Slavic origin, literally meaning “he does not speak”, since German is not a Slavic language)[1]; the h is a remnant of obsolete Hungarian spelling, as frequently found in names, especially in families of noble origin. Alternate spellings include “Nemeth”, “Neimeth”, “Német”, “Nemath”, “Namath”, “Nameth”, “Nemet” and “Nimitz”.

    Németh

  26. The terms for “German” are rather similar in all the major Slavic languages, apparently derived from a pra-Slavic root meaning “mute.” Hungarian and Romanian must have borrowed the term from Slavic languages. Early Muscovites seem to have called немцы all foreigners from the West who were not Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian (in the broadest sense), Finnish, Swedish, etc., which leaves us with the Germans in the broadest sense, as D. O. says.

  27. I fully agree with those pointing out that the linguistic evidence here can be fully explained simply by Columbus learning Catalan before he learned Castilian and/or to a much greater level of proficiency than he learned Castilian. I myself am currently struggling with the fact that native French speakers tell me I sound like a German when I speak French – this is because I achieved fluency in German long before I got anywhere close to that level in French (and still speak much better German than French now). It does NOT mean I am in any way ethnically German!

    I also note that the Wikipedia article on Colombus mentions that one of the few pieces of evidence of his early life is that he was a sailor on a Genovese ship in the service of René of Anjou for the purpose of recovering the Kingdom of Naples, which at the time was under the control of the kingdom of Aragon. So the idea of him coming into a good deal of contact with Catalan at a fairly early age seems quite likely, even without considering the possibility that it might have been the main lingua franca of the western Mediterannean at the time.

  28. Speaking of lingua franca, the original Lingua Franca had a large and obvious Catalan base (as I once had to point out to a scholar of Lingua Franca who happened to be much more familiar with Occitan than with Catalan).

    That said, I tend to agree with those who’ve said here that Columbus would have had much more opportunity to learn Catalan than Castilian in his early life. It was the chancery language of the Kingdom of Aragon, wasn’t it?

  29. Early Muscovites seem to have called немцы all foreigners from the West who were not Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian (in the broadest sense), Finnish, Swedish, etc., which leaves us with the Germans in the broadest sense, as D. O. says.

    The fact that they had separate terms for specific nationalities does not disprove my point, any more than the fact that English has separate words for hundreds of colors means that most speakers won’t limit themselves to half a dozen. Of course if a chronicler wanted to specify the origin of a person or army, he could use фряги or whatever, but I’ll bet you three polushkas that when the average Muscovite-in-the-street ran across people wearing Western clothes and jabbering in some foreign tongue, he muttered “немцы” and let it go at that.

  30. A pity that the author didn’t put in a column for Genoese, just for comparison’s sake.

    The people at omniglot claim that there were more similarities between Genoese and Catalan than Genoese and Italian, for what it’s worth. Can’t say I know much about it, which is shameful since I summered in Genoa for a few years back in the day.

  31. Good point!

  32. … pretentious enough into the bargain, to force their neighbors to refer to them in the obsolete nominative plural.

    Romanes eunt domus!

  33. Trond Engen says:

    Rodger C.: [Catalan] was the chancery language of the Kingdom of Aragon, wasn’t it?

    I have the same impression. I’ve been wondering when Castillian replaced the intermediate dialects from the Aragon area.

    Actually, I think I’ve been informed about this before and was told that it didn’t happen once but twice. First True Aragonese was replaced by Some Period Castillian, and then, in recent times, Aragonese Regional Castillian has been nearly replaced by Locally Coloured Modern Castillian. The Aragonese dialects lingering on in the valleys of the Pyrenees are relics of Regional Castillian, not True Aragonese, and do not form a dialect chain with Catalan.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    The people at Omniglot claim there were more similarities between Genoese and Catalan than Genoese and Italian, for what it’s worth.

    That’s based on its classification as Gallo-Romance. But it would be odd if a Gallo-Romance variety spoken at the immediate border of Tuscany wouldn’t have a lot in common with what became Standard Italian. Or are the relative unity of Catalan, Valancian, Tuscan and Ligurian a result of the prestige of Occitan in the Medieval West Mediterranean?

  35. Marja Erwin says:

    And of course, in Germanic, all foreigners are either Welsh or Wendish– whoever the Venedi are. (Slavs? Temematians? Narwhales?)

  36. Trond: I agree that claiming that Genoese has more in common with Catalan than with Tuscan is very strange, and to my mind this claim is a result of Genoese and Catalan both being classified as Western Romance: the isogloss separating Eastern and Western Romance (known as the La Spezia-Rimini line) is located just North of Tuscany, and everything South of this line (including Tuscan) is, along with Romanian and Dalmatian, considered Eastern Romance.

    I say Western Romance, rather than Gallo-Romance, because while Western Romance does have a shared innovation (voicing of Latin voiceless intervocalic stops) the total number of shared innovations in Gallo-Romance (whether Catalan and/or Northern Italian are included) is somewhere between zero and nil.

    And while Old Provencal indeed influenced its neighbors, the unity of Western Romance clearly predates the rise of Old Provencal as a separate language.

    As for the spread of Castilian and Catalan at the expense of Aragonese, I had written about that here:

    http://languagehat.com/aranese/

  37. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks, Etienne. That’s exactly what I unexactly remembered.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    whoever the Venedi are

    There is the claim that it’s the “Late IE” endonym which lingered on in all those tribes that didn’t coin a new endonym of their own, a lot like all the Slavic endonyms with *slověn- that have a rather random geographic distribution (Slovenes, Slovaks, Slovincians…). The supposed meaning is “friends/allies”, not unlike los texas and related to Germanic *win- as in Winston.

  39. Of course if a chronicler wanted to specify the origin of a person or army, he could use фряги or whatever, but I’ll bet you three polushkas that when the average Muscovite-in-the-street ran across people wearing Western clothes and jabbering in some foreign tongue, he muttered “немцы” and let it go at that.

    I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this comment box, happily, is not too small to contain. I’m reading Князь Серебряный [Prince Serebryany], a historical novel by Aleksey K. Tolstoy (not to be confused with Aleksey N. Tolstoy or, of course, Leo Tolstoy) set in the time of Ivan the Terrible, and a fiery young lad says to the tsar: “Пошли меня воевать с Литвой, пошли в Ливонскую землю. Или, государь, на Рязань пошли, татар колотить!” [Send me to fight Lithuania, to the Livonian land. Or, sire, send me to Ryazan to thrash the Tatars!]. A few lines later his worried father says “Горяча в нем кровь, государь. Затем и просится на татар да немцев” [He’s hot-blooded, sire. That’s why he’s asking to go to the Tatars and немцы]. Note that he describes the people of Lithuania as немцы, (now) literally ‘Germans.’ QED!

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Are you sure those are the Lithuanians and not the Teutonic Knights in Livonia?

  41. Dammit, they probably are the Teutonic Knights. Curses, foiled again!

  42. Wikipedia:

    The Livonian War (1558–1583) was fought for control of Old Livonia (in the territory of present-day Estonia and Latvia), when the Tsardom of Russia faced a varying coalition of Denmark–Norway, the Kingdom of Sweden, and the Union (later Commonwealth) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland.

    So who the hell knows.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    I followed a further link to the Livonian Federation and found an article on the very interesting entity of Terra Mariana, which I didn’t know anything about.

    Anyway, Russia fought the Livonian war to gain control of the lands once held by the Teutonic Knights, and the “varying coalition” consisted of the Livonian Confederation (of Bishoprics and Post-Teutonic knights) and whoever they could attract as defenders for a promise of vassaldom, so seen from Moscow they could well have been the Germans.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    One more click, and I finally learned where Jakob von Uexküll got his name from!

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Ikšķile […]; German: Uexküll; Livonian: Ikškilā); Finnish: Ykskylä) is a town in Latvia, […]

    The Livonian word Ikšķile (or the German Uexküll) denotes “the ford or islet(s), i.e. a place (on the Daugava River) where it was possible to cross the river, belonging to the son of the nobleman Ike”. The personal name Ike has the honourable meaning ‘age, lifetime’. The Ike family had a great power in Livonia. They controlled the military and trade traffic across the Daugava at Ykescola/Ykescole.

    That looks like two etymologies. “Son of Ike” smells of folk etymology, The other, “Islet-ford” in Livonian, would surely fit the local geography. That’s about all I can say about it. Except that the Finnish name Ykskylä (or a presumed Estonian Üksküla) looks like it might mean “One-Village”. (Since my Finnish consists of the numbers one to ten and a handful of toponymic elements, I was unusually well prepared for this task.)

  46. The flip side:

    “Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.” —Sam: Johnson

  47. Trond Engen says:

    The presumed Estonian Üksküla does in fact exist. I was afraid I had made a mistake with the final a, but apparently not.

    Also, following a further link, the Estonian surname Üksküla was given as an Estonian name to people previously having different Unestonian names. One of those was Eindorf.

  48. Must be nice to have such conclusive confirmation!

  49. Trond Engen says:

    Sam. Johnson through John Cowan: […] Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ […]

    The Livonian war was the first eastern adventure of the still consolidating Swedish military state. Peasant revolts against taxes and conscription were largely over. The occasional attempted coup and the following public bloodbath would still happen throughout the 16th century, but the direction is clear.

  50. Trond Engen says:

    conclusive confirmation

    It’s easy to find confirmation (or the opposite) when the only reason that the assumption was made is lackluster research.

  51. Socrates did not lecture, nor did he think lectures were the right way to learn.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    So in Johnson’s story Socrates was transparently dishonest in his offer. That certainly explains why a man would be ashamed to follow him.*

    * No? But wouldn’t it be nice?

  53. Who cares where Columbus was from, when the Americas were (properly) discovered by Bristolian cod-fishers?

  54. Trond Engen says:

    Or not really forgotten, even. Bristol had a long history of northern and western trade, and ships from Bristol was probably the main lifeline for Iceland after the meltdown of Norway following the Black Death.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    I was afraid I had made a mistake with the final a, but apparently not.

    Estonian and Livonian have disharmonized their vowels.

  56. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, I know, which is why I guessed final -a. But I think it’s fairly recent, I don’t know if (or how) it’s conditioned, and at least Estonian also drops a lot of final vowels, e.g. Est. -lin vs. Fi. linna “castle”, also without me having a say with the design of the rules.

  57. Michael Hendry says:

    Catanea’s “Lacatans” (5:16am) rang a bell, and reminded me of Martial, who was from NE Spain, though not quite in Catalonia, if I’ve understood the maps right: ancient Bilbilis, near modern Calatayud.

    Martial three times mentions the tribe living in or near what is now Barcelona and the low-quality wine they exported to the sleazier taverns in Rome. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion in the manuscripts of Martial and the other ancient sources (Sallust, the Elder Pliny, Plutarch). Some think there were two tribes: Laietani or Laeetani or Laletani around Barcino (now Barcelona), and Lacetani just inland, upriver from them, while others think they are all different names for one tribe. Lacetani (tribe) and Lacetania (territory) do look like unmetathesized forms of Catalani and Catalonia, and the name is well-attested as ancient except for the nagging doubt about C as the third letter. (I’m no linguistician, but the A/E difference seems relatively trivial.) If anyone is wondering, the meter shows that the vowels in Laletani are all long, whatever we do with the consonants: Lālētānī.

    On the other hand, I gather from a dip into my Martial commentaries that (a) an ancient inscription has Laietani, (b) the authority on all things Spanish in Martial is Miguel Dolç, Hispania y Marcial, if anyone wants to research this further, and (c) “Dolç suggests that the various corruptions are due partly to phonetic causes, partly to confusion with the name Iacetani (the people of Jaca)”, further north (Peter Howell’s commentary on Martial, Book I, poem 26, line 9). So perhaps the resemblance of Lacetani to Catalan is fortuitous, like the fanciful etymology of English ‘butterfly’ from ‘flutter-by’, and they were actually Laietani.

  58. Greg Pandatshang says:

    fwiw, Lacetani appears to be Carrasquer Vidal’s least unfavorite of the standing proposals. He quotes a source arguing for a medieval enthusiasm for reviving Roman-era geographical names, sometimes resulting in their acceptance in everyday speech.

  59. And Calatayud, I learn, is of Arabic origin, and not related to the name Catalunya by metathesis. A reminder about accidental resemblances.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    the Americas were (properly) discovered by Bristolian cod-fishers

    Not by Basque cod-fishers? in Newfoundland there used to be an incipient Basque-Mikmaw pidgin, in which locals greeted the first French fishermen who landed there.

  61. As with many other subjects, it doesn’t matter who discovered America first as much as who discovered it last.

  62. @D.O.: I cannot seem to find the originator of the quote, but the way I remember hearing it put was: “When Columbus discovered America, it stayed discovered.”

  63. Catalan, called Alguerès, is spoken to this day in Sardinia. Who knows if it was also spoken in Genoa?

    We know it wasn’t. Catalan is spoken in Alghero because it was a colony of the Crown of Aragon, conquered by Peter IV (who has one of my favourite regnal epithets ever, ‘the Ceremonious’), but though Pete also secured Sicily for the Crown (by marrying the only daughter of Frederick III of Sicily) he never dared mess with the Republic of Genoa, which was a major naval power.

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