In January 2012, I will begin taking Spanish lessons. It is partly because my lovely fiancee and I are planning a trip to South America, and as of now I know no Spanish! But it is also because as I pursue my newest project on Hawaiians in California, I am realizing how important the Spanish language is to understanding Alta California in the pre-U.S. days of the early nineteenth century. I presented a paper last spring at a Latin American history conference on "Polynesian Explorers in Latin America," but that was more of a research proposal than a discussion of any research findings. I have not yet looked for Hawaiians in the Spanish-language archives, but there is enough evidence to suggest that Native Hawaiian laborers were extremely important actors in the economy of the Alta California coast in the early nineteenth century. And so starting this spring I will bring in Spanish as my third language of the Pacific World.
And so on?
Chinese. Hawaiian. Spanish. There are so many other languages to know. Alison Games would say there are thousands of languages to learn here. From Hawaiian one could naturally progress to studying Māori, or Tahitian, or Samoan, or Tongan, or Rapanui. From Chinese, next would certainly be Japanese. From Spanish, it wouldn't be too hard to add French (certainly useful for studying French Polynesia). One language seriously missing here is Russian. Indeed, Russian is probably next on my dream list of languages to learn for the Pacific World. Because if you want to understand Alaska before it was American, you need to know Russian. Of course, Imperial Russia simply took over other people's lands in the Pacific World, so perhaps it would be just as important to study Aleut, or perhaps I should ask my Siberian friend to teach me Yakut, her native language. Ditto for Spanish California: why not learn Chumash? And even in considering China, why not study the indigenous languages of Taiwan, and the many languages of the ethnic minorities of the South China coast?
Generations ago, few people questioned that history was written by and for the victors. In an imperial world, where a handful of North Atlantic superpowers controlled much of the Southern hemisphere through colonialism, few historians thought there was any history worth telling besides the history of the conquerors. Imperial historians went out to the peripheries and collected and co-opted indigenous stories. Through Orientalism, these historians made up a heck of a lot of stories about these "others," too. And so the many, many histories (most of them orally transmitted) of the world were synthesized into a single meta-narrative, that of the clash between civilization (white folks) and savagery (everyone else), where 99% of the world was classified, of course, as the latter. They were, as Eric Wolf has termed them, "the people without history."
But through language study, we can rediscover the long-lost words of the "others." In fact, we are responsible, as historians, to find these words and give them a critical rehearing. This is a simple matter of historiographical justice. That these documents exist demands us to learn as many languages as possible so that we can really hear what the past is telling us.
Now who wants to join me? What languages should we learn?