Missionary Linguistics – Latin, Portuguese and Japanese resources online

In the mid-90s, I was an undergraduate student taking Latin and Japanese classes. People looked at me as if I were doing something silly and had no idea of the meaning of the word “job market,” usually asking my reasons to study languages that were so… different. Well, I would go really fine on answering that I started learning them by curiosity and liked them. In the Humanities, we get used to being asked  “what for?” about the things we love to study.

That’s when I first learned about Jesuit grammar books and dictionaries on the Japanese language. As for grammar books, we must not understand them strictly as the ones we use nowadays, of course. They are called artes and bring information about the language and history, religion, and habits – summing up, relevant information for newcomers who needed to get rapidly acquainted with the people. (For the primary databases with related material, see James Morris’ Beyond “Laures Kirishitan Bunko”: Digital Repositories for Studying 16th and 17th Century Japanese Christianity). By that time, I had no idea of how relevant they were for the history of Japanese Linguistics. One of these books is João Rodrigues Tçuzzu‘s Arte da lingoa de Iapam, where, in its first part, he offers a pattern of cases (nominative, genitive, and so on, following the Latin tradition) for nouns and pronouns with the addition of particles, clarifying that there are neither declensions nor plural or gender inflections in Japanese:

(Free downloadable version here)

João Tçuzzu is the prior reference in Japanese artes and dictionaries in this period. His nickname Tçuzzu means “interpreter,” and he was really engaged in the tasks of translating, interpreting, and describing the Japanese language. He still appears as the author of the Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam on the website of Gallica – the digital library of the National Library of France, even though it is currently not controversial that this dictionary had many contributors. It is a privilege to have such a rare book available in open access, at the reach of anyone who finds it by curiosity and likes it.

Recently one of my colleagues, Rômulo Ehalt, shared a helpful tool with me: a website whose domain is named after João Tçuzzu. It is a database dedicated to Missionary Linguistics, created by Professor Toyoshima Masayuki. The Jesuits had their mission, and this website has its honorable mission as well: ” This site has been established in the hope of providing fundamental resources and tools of ‘Missionary Linguistics’ for international cooperative researches.” (Call me an idealist, but I believe João Rodrigues Tçuzzu would be a DH addict if he lived today, and he would LOVE this website.)

By clicking on “Related Linguistic resources,” we are led to a board with different subgroups of data. ” Latin Glossaries with vernacular sources” comes in the first line and is my favorite. I can find there the  Dictionarium Latino Lusitanicum ac Japonicum (1595), printed in Amakusa, the well-known Latin-Portuguese-Japanese dictionary, ready for a text search. I decide to give it a try and look for the word scientia – and it turns out that my query finds 7 items:

In “how to search,” there are instructions on narrowing the possibilities, along with the small boxes on the left. It is possible to search for the same word simultaneously in more than one source! I try searching for gratus, now using the symbols ^ and $, delimitating the beginning and end of the term:

It is also possible to narrow your search by choosing a language, selecting a book and/or indicating if it is an entry word. I try searching for gueta as an entry word, selecting Japanese as the language and Dict JP 1603 Nagasaqui(Jpn-Por), that goes for the Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam, as the book. The result is the following:

It does not only show the word gueta but also the entries before and after. The letters [J] and [P] indicate Japanese and Portuguese respectively and follow the original typos of the Vocabvlario itself (regular for Japanese words and italic for Portuguese and Latin ones). What an interesting feature!

Then I decide to move back to the main menu. There I see “Historical Portuguese Orthographies by Tôru Maruyama”. Yep, here I go once again to Tçuzzu, to his Arte da lingoa de Iapam, the first Japanese grammar following the Latin tradition. Just because of this inheritance, I decide to search for genitivo (the word in Portuguese for “genitive”) and click on João Rodriguez 1604, to find 66 items:

Each of these items is an occurrence of the word genitivo in the text. The good news is that the search results include both genitivo and genitiuo, not making difference between v and u. Well, most of the times, this comprehensive configuration is a plus when we are working with documents like this.

The database also offers a subgroup on Japanese Lexicography with Japanese pre-modern dictionaries. Even though it is a tentative database for proofreading, as the website clearly warns, it has an interesting feature: one can directly access the pages of the dictionary, available at the National Diet Library’s Digital Collection, by clicking in the box with the word “image”.

The Jesuit priests did a remarkable job registering information about the language and culture of the period, as they did in other countries, but surely not as broadly and quickly as they did in Japan. Some of the reasons for this phenomenon, according to professor Toru Maruyama[i], are the high level of literacy of the Japanese people, the cooperation of Japanese native speakers, and the use of the movable types press (hastened by anti-christian edits) to reproduce and distribute the texts.

Imagine Francisco Xavier and other Portuguese men in 1543, reaching Japan for the first time, by chance, their vessel thrown at Tanegashima. It sounds scary, doesn’t it? Yet, they were introduced to the probably likewise surprised Japanese dwellers by a Chinese interpreter writing characters on the sand. Imagine trying to “describe a language” for the first time, including notes on linguistic variation (according to geography, social position, gender, etc.) and some historical information — yet they had the aid of indigenous people (not always credited in the front matter). Imagine being able to spread their message and teach Japanese to their peers with the most advanced technology they had by that time (alright, now it is becoming familiar).

In the Humanities, we will always be asked  “what for?” about the things we love to study. “A PDF of this?” “A website for that?” “Latin and Japanese together?” Yes, indeed, for sure. There is always a new mission — because there is still much to know from those documents — and we are going digital.


[i] Maruyama, T. Estudo da língua japonesa através dos documentos deixados pelos missionários portugueses dos séculos XVI e XVII–pensando o passado e o futuro da minha investigação. (“Study of the Japanese language through the 16th and 17th centuries’ documents from the Portuguese missionaries – thinking the past and the future of my investigation”) Confluência41(42), 64-79.

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