"Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam" (1603) and spellings of Japanese words in the letters of English East India Company merchants in Japan

Abstract for the seminar of the Helsinki Society for Historical Lexicography (HSHL), 2 February, Helsinki, Finland.

Samuli Kaislaniemi
University of Helsinki

Early seventeenth-century English East India Company (EIC) merchants had a vested interest in learning local and regional languages spoken in the East Indies. In this light, it is surprising that the EIC did not invest in the creation of language-learning materials for its employees. In contrast, Catholic missionaries systematically studied and codified Asian languages, as part of their work in spreading the gospel, and established printing presses to disseminate the fruits of their labours. This study looks at whether EIC merchants in Japan might have had the use of a missionary-compiled dictionary.

The Jesuit mission press was established in Japan in 1590. By the time the EIC arrived in 1613, the press had been used to print at least 70 different works. One of these was the first dictionary from Japanese to a European language (Portuguese), Vocabvlario da lingoa de Iapam (1603). The EIC withdrew from Japan in 1623, but a sizeable corpus of documents from their venture survives. There is no explicit record of the EIC merchants having owned and used a copy of the Jesuit dictionary. This study looks at indirect evidence, the spellings of Japanese words and names in the letters written by the EIC merchants in Japan, and compares them with spellings found in the Vocabvlario. It finds that although the EIC merchants do not appear to have referred to the Jesuit dictionary for the spelling of Japanese words in general, their spellings of Japanese proper names shows clear influence from Portuguese.