A five-year team project carried out within the Focus Programme of the Foundation for Polish Science dealt with changes occurring in the early-colonial language and culture of the Nahuas under the influence of Spanish and European culture. We studied the processes of translation, conceptualization, adaptation and categorization through language as the focal point of interaction between cultures across time, using the case of postconquest Mexico, which with its unique bodies of texts in Nahuatl and Spanish is the most propitious arena.
The discovery, conquest, and subsequent colonization of the Americas gave rise to a long process of cross-cultural communication—in which both sides participated equally—that continued to develop well beyond the first-contact phase at least into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In an enterprise that has been called “the domestication of the other,” the native groups of New Spain observed Spanish phenomena and categorized them out of the resources of their own language, gradually moving to adopting and adapting Spanish words, phrases, and ideas, while the Spaniards did much the same in the other direction. Our research project was based on the multi-disciplinary approach assuming that the innovation of studying both sides in a single framework is particularly promising in dealing with a notably two-sided process.
The aims of the project, however, extended beyond studying the language change itself: instead the focus has been on the results of long-term cross-cultural contact related to the survival of local tradition and the shaping of cultural attitudes. Studying older and modern Nahuatl has been a point of departure for exploring other elements of native culture. The project has made it possible to create and test a new model of collaboration between European and indigenous researchers. Among its participants have been both Polish PhD students and indigenous Nahua students from Veracruz and Tlaxcala, carrying out ethnolinguistic research in their communities. One of the main results of the project has been the creation of an extensive database as a principal tool for classification and analysis of source material. This internet-based, relational database of colonial Nahuatl texts has made it possible to gather, classify and describe in a systematic way the data related to language change and cross-cultural transfer. An important contribution of the project has been an interdisciplinary methodological proposal combining studies of historical and modern processes, on both cultural history and language.