Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language

A report by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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:

the sunset
all at once
to say no
they died
I didn’t care for
it has rained some
el sol post
tot d’un cop
tot arreu
dir de no
no curava
ha plogut poc o gaire
Colom (in Spanish):
al sol puesto
todo de un golpe
a todo arreo
decir de no
no curaba
ha llovido poco o mucho
la puesta del sol
todo a la vez
por todas partes
decir que no
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.

One thought on “Christopher Columbus’s Catalan-Inflected Language

  1. There are lots and lots of mistakes here–we really should leave history to historians!

    1. “His language had resonance of Catalan”.

    I’m sure it did. As a Genoese navigator, he would’ve met a lot of Catalan-speaking sailors from Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia. He never studied Spanish (that is, Castilian) formally, so of course he got them mixed up (not that they’d been standardized.)

    2. The article doesn’t take into account the solid evidence of Columbus’s Genoese origins.

    3. He named places, for the most part, in order to please the Catholic Kings. Montserrat is an important monastery. It hardly indicates that he was Catalan! Does the fact that English people venerate St. George indicate that their roots are in Asia Minor?

    4. The question of his signatures does NOT indicate that his name was Colom. It has been resolved by paleographers (of which I am not one). 🙂

    5. There is no evidence that he ever wrote a singe sentence in Catalan.

    6. No scholar suggests he departed from Pals int he Empordà. This ridiculous and unsupported theory is promulgated only by the Institut Nova Història, an ultranationalist group that has proved that Cervantes, Cortés, Santa Teresa, Pizarro, Marco Polo, Shakespeare, Erasmus, Thomas More, Albrecht Dürer, and dozens of others were all Catalan.

    7. The suggestion that “the only letter Colom bequeathed to him was written in Catalan” is based on a misreading.

    8. “Colom is pointing out to sea, with his back to Castile.”


    His back is to Catalonia as well, isn’t it?

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