[lg policy] Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Oct 9 11:08:54 EDT 2017

 Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language
[image: Ribas1474889171_065220_1474889281_noticia_normal_recorte1]

Columbus monument in Barcelona, with helicopter bearing symbol of Catalonia
(Photo by Carles Ribas, *El País*)

The violence surrounding the Catalan independence referendum on October 1
has put Spanish democracy under a microscope. Some scholars believe
Monday’s holiday, which the United States calls Columbus Day and some
localities celebrate as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, has an implicit
link to the Catalan independence struggle, one that casts some doubt on the
national origins of Christopher Columbus.

While conventionally regarded as Genovese, his language had resonances of

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:
the sunset
all at once
to say no
they died
I didn’t care for
it has rained some *Catalan:*
el sol post
tot d’un cop
tot arreu
dir de no
no curava
ha plogut poc o gaire
*Colom (in Spanish): *al sol puesto
todo de un golpe
a todo arreo
decir de no
no curaba
ha llovido poco o mucho *Spanish*
la puesta del sol
todo a la vez
por todas partes
decir que no
no me interesaba
ha llovido algo

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

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. Lluís de Santàngel, who financed
him, was from Valencia (part of the Països Catalans) and spoke Catalan, and
Pedro de Terreros, Colom’s personal steward — the only crewmember with him
on all four voyages — was from north of Barcelona; the first baptism in the
Americas was carried out by Ramon Pané, a man “of the Catalan nation,”
according to Las Casas, most likely chosen by Colom, as was the first
apostolic vicar of the West Indies (Bernat de Boïl) and the expedition’s
military chief (Bertran i de Margarit).

The Catholic Monarchs received Colom in Barcelona after the first voyage,
and some scholars maintain that the first journey left not from Palos, in
Andalucía, but from Pals in Catalonia.

Colom’s son Diego left a silver lamp in his will to Our Lady of Montserrat
“on account of the great devotion that I have always had.” As Diego never
lived in Catalonia, and his mother was Portuguese, a piety for Montserrat
was probably inherited from his father. According to the archives of his
son Fernando, the only letter Colom bequeathed to him was written in
Catalan; that document and a copy (translated to German from Catalan in
Strasbourg in 1497) were lost; many believe they were destroyed in part to
subdue Catalonian nationalism.

Part of the mystery may have come from Colom himself. The Hebrew marginalia
and references to the Jewish High Holy Days in his writings indicate that,
like Lluís de Santàngel, it is possible Colom or his ancestors were
converts to Christianity.

At the end of La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous street, is a 200-foot high
statue of Colom. At the base are Lluís de Santàngel, the financier; Jaume
Ferrer de Blanes, a cartographer; Bernat de Boïl, that first apostolic
minister in the Americas; and Pere Bertran i de Margarit, the military
commander. The motto of the monument is, “Honorable Colom, Catalonia honors
her favorite children.”

Colom is pointing out to sea, with his back to Castile.

*Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is an associate professor in the department of
humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. His books include* After
American Studies *(Routledge, 2017),* Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism*,
and* Paris in American Literatures*. His recent work has appeared in*
Modern Fiction Studies*,* Voces del Caribe*,* *and* The Minnesota Review.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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