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Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language

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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 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:

English:
the sunset
all at once
everywhere
Antilles
number
to say no
seven-hundred
virtue
charity
they died
I didn’t care for
it has rained some
Catalan:
el sol post
tot d’un cop
tot arreu
Anti-illes
nombre
dir de no
setcentes
virtut
caritat
esmorteíren
no curava
ha plogut poc o gaire
Colom (in Spanish):
al sol puesto
todo de un golpe
a todo arreo
Antillas
nombre
decir de no
setcentas
virtut
caritatt
escmorecieron
no curaba
ha llovido poco o mucho
Spanish
la puesta del sol
todo a la vez
por todas partes
Anti-islas
número
decir que no
setecientos
virtud
caridad
fallecieron/murieron
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 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. 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.

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