The Missionary Dictionary: Native Words, Spanish Concepts, and Pre-Hispanic Paganism

Name of applicant

Casper Jacobsen


Independent Research Fund Denmark


DKK 1,194,266



Type of grant

Reintegration Fellowships


Words are gateways to history-although not always to the history we know. When 16th-century missionaries set out to Christianize indigenous American peoples in the Spanish Empire, the dictionary was their key tool for fusing two previously isolated hemispheres. Using Antonio de Nebrija's Spanish-to-Latin dictionary as a model for their own dictionaries, the missionaries tended to translate from Latin and Spanish to indigenous languages. This working order reflected the task of conversion, which required Christian terms and texts to be translated. But did the missionary dictionaries of indigenous languages record or produce the non-Christian religious terms they indexed? Examining Nahuatl and Quechua dictionaries and texts (1540-1615), this question guides the Missionary Dictionary project.


Scholarship on pre-Hispanic America draws increasingly on source materials written in indigenous languages in an attempt to understand indigenous social and conceptual worlds and deter colonialist representations found in Spanish source texts. This endeavor relies on the handy tool of the missionary dictionary. Yet, this was not a mere recording device, but also a missionary venue for reshaping semantic landscapes. New knowledge of the missionary dictionary as a historical source material and genre born from Nebrija's Spanish-Latin dictionary is thus needed. By critically scrutinizing missionary dictionaries and their processes of production, this project enables a methodological reconsideration of colonial sources on pre-Hispanic religion set to change our views of pre-Hispanic society.


The Missionary Dictionary project systematically compares religious terminology in Nebrija's Latin-to-Spanish dictionary with religious terminology in missionary Nahuatl and Quechua dictionaries. It furthermore analyzes how that terminology was used in colonial Spanish, Nahuatl, and Quechua texts focused on portraying pre-Hispanic religious life. With this approach, the project explores how pre-existing Euro-Christian conceptions of 'paganism' might have served to reconceptualize the pre-Hispanic past in colonial society.

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