In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language, State, and Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • World History and Language
  • First Contact and Interlinguistic Communication
  • Missions
  • Linguistic Intermediaries
  • Language and Slavery

Atlantic History Language, State, and Empire
Paul Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0221


Three distinct historical phenomena—language, state, and empire—each animated by powerful internal dynamics, must be parsed and analyzed on their own terms, yet also tied together by the same processes that link culture, governance, and power more generally. The European maritime voyages of exploration, colonial conquests, commercial initiatives, and missionary enterprises that brought the Atlantic world into being between the 15th and the 18th centuries expanded the cultural, political, and social terrains upon which these phenomena unfolded, and changed their terms. Overseas empire, transatlantic commercial networks, mass migration, the African slave trade, and Christian evangelization brought languages into contact for the first time and forced states, communities, and individual historical actors to test old linguistic practices in new contexts, or to hammer out new modes of communication. The European states that carved out Atlantic empires imposed European languages of administration on the structures of governance in their colonies; the European migrants who peopled the settler colonies of the Americas reproduced European linguistic cultures on American soil. States, commercial operators, and missionaries recruited linguistic intermediaries in order to communicate with native populations. In some cases, colonial administrators and European missionaries sought to master local tongues in order to better serve their political and confessional ends; in other cases, they instead endeavored to impose European tongues on Amerindian peoples to advance the very same causes. The profound demographic, social, cultural, and political disruptions that the Atlantic system and European empire wrought on Amerindian communities substantially reshaped native idioms and the patterns of their use. The construction of the slave plantation complex in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas brought African tongues into contact with European and Amerindian idioms in exacting social situations, and offered the crucible for the genesis of new creole languages. Within scholarship on the Atlantic world, the interrelated character of language, state, and empire is frequently invoked as an important example of the cultural changes this early modern transoceanic system wrought. It is therefore all the more surprising that these questions have only rarely become the object of systematic study. Historians in particular have been late to take an interest in language as a historical phenomenon, and most research on these questions is the work of linguists and scholars of literature. A recent and rapid increase in scholarly interest in the question of language in historical context—particularly in colonial contexts—suggests that this subject may be poised to become a central focus of Atlantic scholarship.

General Overviews

An overview of language, state, and empire in the Atlantic world would be a multidimensional exercise indeed: language encounters as an aspect of intercultural contact and exchange, language practice in the social experience of empire and the Atlantic world, the incorporation of language into ideologies of empire, language practice in the day-to-day administration of states and empires, and linguistic contact and the birth of new idioms. Given that historians have not focused serious attention on language until recently and that scholars have hailed from a range of disparate disciplines, most work focuses on case studies or specific aspects. To date no overview exists. Ostler 2005 (cited under World History and Language) offers a wide-reaching overview of language in context in world history. With respect to the Atlantic world, taken together, the articles collected in Gray and Fiering 2000 represent the best introduction to the subject. Gray 1999 (cited under Ideologies of Language and Empire) provides an introduction to the intellectual and cultural history of the European encounter with the languages of the Americas. Given the considerable disciplinary, linguistic, archival, and geographic challenges that any scholar embarking on such an enterprise would face, it will likely be some time before the state of the scholarly literature will make such an overview possible.

  • Gray, Edward G., and Norman Fiering, eds. The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492–1800. Papers presented at a conference entitled Communicating with the Indians: Aspects of the Language Encounter with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, 1492–1800, held 18–20 October 1996, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI. New York: Berghahn, 2000.

    Bringing together essays originally presented at a conference organized at the John Carter Brown Library, this volume presents a pioneering statement and exploration of the language problem in the history of the Atlantic and the colonial Americas. Essays touch on interpreters, vehicular languages, literacy, missionary linguistics, and historical linguistics.

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