Built upon the Tower of Babel : language policy and the clergy in Bourbon Mexico




Zakaib, Susan Blue

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This dissertation provides the first in-depth analysis of the “Bourbon language reforms”—a series of royal and ecclesiastical policies aimed at spreading the Spanish language in New Spain (now Mexico), enacted primarily between the 1750s and 1770s under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. The limited scholarship on these reforms has assumed that a monolithic Bourbon state sought to mold a monolingual, Spanish-speaking empire. It has also suggested that creoles (American-born Spaniards), mendicants (Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian friars), indigenous peoples, or some combination thereof responded by uniformly opposing the Bourbon state’s oppressive measures. I challenge both of these arguments by analyzing the central Mexican Catholic Church’s “language regime”—not only official policies, but also their historical context, and predominant ideologies about indigenous languages and their speakers—between 1700 and 1821. I demonstrate that indigenous languages were deeply integrated into the inner workings of the Church—not only its religious services, but also its bureaucracy and hierarchy. Native language competency helped to determine clerics’ career paths, forge socioeconomic hierarchies within the Church, and shape political disputes between warring royal and ecclesiastical factions. This key role of native languages in the Church helped induce the Bourbon language reforms. In spite of the reform effort, however, native languages continued to play a critical role in ecclesiastical administration through the end of the colonial period. This was due in large part to the fact that the Bourbon state did not seek uniformly to eradicate these languages; indeed, royal and ecclesiastical authorities could not even agree on precisely what their language policy should entail. Few priests (creole or not) felt the need to resist a reform effort that was contradictory, piecemeal, and of limited consequence for the Church. Contrary to many scholars’ assumptions, these findings indicate that modern Mexico’s linguistic inequality is not a persistent vestige of colonial policy. Instead, 18th-century language policy was only an early step in a centuries-long process leading to today’s particular brand of linguistic discrimination.



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