Missionary Linguistics; the joys of interpreting

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Geoff Wade called my attention to this interesting website: The Digital Orientalist (also accessible via Twitter).  The current issue is on "Missionary Linguistics – Latin, Portuguese and Japanese resources online", by Michele Eduarda Brasil de Sá (12/24/21).  The article begins:

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.

The mention of tçuzzu as meaning "interpreter" stopped me dead in my tracks:  I had to figure out what Sino-Japanese word it reflected.  It didn't take long to discover that tçuzzu is a transcription of Japanese tsūji 通事, which indeed means "interpreter".  It just so happens that 通事 (Jap. tsūji つうじ , Kor. tongsa 통사, Mand. tōngshì) is one of my favorite premodern East Asian and Northeast Asian terms relating to language studies.  That was mainly because, half a century ago, I became enraptured by two 14th-century Korean handbooks for tongsa 通事 ("translators"), Interpreter Pak and The Old Cathayan.  To me, these books were inestimably precious because they (and their 16th- and 17th-century editions) were written in vernacular Northern Mandarin and recorded amazing records about daily life (including the purchase and preparation of food), lore, language, and literature of the time. 

Bak Tongsa (Chinese: 朴通事; lit. 'Pak the interpreter') was a textbook of colloquial northern Chinese published by the Bureau of Interpreters in Korea in various editions between the 14th and 18th centuries. Like the contemporaneous Nogeoldae ('Old Cathayan'), it is an important source on both Late Middle Korean and the history of Mandarin Chinese. Whereas the Nogeoldae consists of dialogues and focusses on travelling merchants, Bak Tongsa is a narrative text covering society and culture.


I'm a teetotaler, but reading these two books afforded me the closest approximation to what I imagined it must be like to get drunk.

1 Comment

  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2021 @ 2:45 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    When talking to people about Hangul, I always make a point of telling them how important Choe Sejin (1465-1542) was. He was, as you may know, the person who gave the Hangul letters the names they now go by, as well as their order in dictionaries. Oh, and don't forget it's in his character dictionary that we see the actual Korean readings of Chinese characters, as opposed to the prescriptive readings Sejong left us with!

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