document | Presentation of the RELiCTA database

  • Over the past three decades, "missionary linguistics" has become an inalienable part of the historiography of the language sciences. Alternatively, it can be seen as a subfield of historical linguistics. Scholarsactive in this field of research concentrate on early modern or nineteenth-century language descriptions and catechetical tools composed by missionaries or other fieldworkers. In the wake of proto-globalization, European missionaries were sent by the Catholic Church and by European states to the Americas and Asia in order to convert the native populations to the 'true Catholic religion'. It soon became clear that these large-scale evangelization attempts could be successful only if the missionaries managed to master the local languages. In order to pass on their linguistic command - which was often acquired with much toil, patience, and difficulties - to heir successors and thus ensure both continuity and progress in their evangelization project, missionaries started compiling dictionaries, writing grammars, and translating religious texts, such as catechisms, books of sermons and confession manuals.

    A considerable number of these linguistic tools were printed, but a much larger number never reached the printing presses. Hundreds of such unprinted manuscripts are preserved in libraries, archives, or in private religious institutions, whereas others have probably gone lost over time.

    The significance of this body of linguistic tools developed by European missionary friars was already highlighted and demonstrated by several scholars active in the nineteenth and twentieth century (see, e.g., Dahlmann 1891; Hanzeli 1969). Indeed, the missionary grammars and vocabularies are often the earliest attestations of overall ill-documented languages, some of which are even extinct today. However, from the 1990s onwards, the linguistic undertakings of both early modern and nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionaries have been given more systematic attention, as can be inferred from the specialized biennial conferences organized by Otto Zwartjes and from the publication of a host of collected volumes and monographs (to name just a few: Hovdhaugen 1996; Zimmermann 1997; Wendt 1998; Zwartjes 2011; Zimmermann & Kellermeier-Rehbein 2015). For the most recent state of the art, see Zwartjes (2012). Recently, a series of early modern vocabularies of Amerindian languages was included in the Unesco’s Memory of the World program (Unesco 2015), which further underlines the significance of these sources. On the other hand, the recent Brazil's National Museum fire dramatically highlights how vulnerable these precious documents, many of which have neither been studied nor digitized, remain even today (Dreyfus 2018).

    This contribution will briefly present our digital project RELiCTA (Repertory of Early Modern Linguistic and Catechetical Tools of America, Asia, and Africa), whose name evokes both the relative neglect these texts have suffered in the past and their status as a precious, if precarious, legacy, which is worth preserveing. RELiCTA is a database that covers the body of early modern linguistic and catechetical tools for non-European languages, offering metadata, such as authorship, place and date of publication, reprints, book dimensions, and persons involved, for example commissioners or writers of prefaces. Currently, it contains more than 4000 unique records.

  • Category: Academic publication
  • Thematic area: Documentation
  • Call topics: Intergenerational transmission
  • Major objective: Deliver capacities to take concrete actions and measures to support, access and promote indigenous languages
  • Area of intervention: Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge