Columbus Was a Catalan-Speaking Jew, Scholar Says

Christopher Columbus

WASHINGTON–Christopher Columbus’ origins are not obscure by chance, but rather the result of the famed explorer’s having purposely hid the fact he was a Jew or “converso” (convert to Christianity) whose native language was Catalan, a U.S. scholar told Efe Thursday.

Estelle Irizarry, a linguistics professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, reached that conclusion after examining his writings in detail and discovering a simple but important clue that had escaped other researchers: a slash symbol – similar to the ones used in Internet addresses – that Columbus employed to indicate pauses in sentences.

That symbol, also known as a virgule, did not appear in texts of that era written in Castilian nor in writings from any other country, but only in records and letters from the Catalan-speaking areas of the Iberian peninsula, namely present-day Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, Irizarry said.

“The virgules are sort of like Columbus’ DNA. They were a habit of his. Columbus was a punctuator and was one of the few of that era,” the professor and author of 34 books on literature said.

Irizarry uses that metaphor as the title of her latest book, “Christopher Columbus: The DNA of his Writings,” in which she pored over the language and syntax the Great Navigator used in more than 100 letters, diaries and documents.

She also found in her research of documents from that era written on the Balearic island of Ibiza that 75 percent contained virgules similar to Columbus’.

At the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, authors normally left punctuation for publishers and even Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was only filled in once and for all with periods and commas in the 19th century, making Columbus’ virgules all the more noteworthy, Irizarry said.

Her book confirms some of the conclusions drawn by scholar Nito Verdera, who identified many words of Catalan origin in Colon’s writing.

Irizarry thinks the future explorer grew up in a Catalan-speaking region and that that explains why he did not express himself correctly in Spanish, which would have been his second language.

Proof of that is the inconsistency of his spelling, she said, noting for example that he would write “trujeron” and “trajeron” – incorrect and correct spellings, respectively, of the Spanish word for “brought” – sometimes in the same sentence.

In addition, these peculiarities of his writing and other linguistic aspects associated with Ladino, a Jewish ethnolect in late medieval Spain, suggest that Columbus was Jewish, Irizarry said.

“Columbus even punctuated marginal notes and he included copious notes around his pages. In that sense, he followed the punctuation style of the Ladino-speaking scribes,” the professor said.

Irizarry says her research clears up the big mystery surrounding Columbus’ place of birth, which he never revealed but which different historians have claimed was Genoa, Italy; the French Mediterranean island of Corsica; Portugal; and Greece, as well as Spain.

“The people who hid (their origins) more and had reason to do so were the Jews,” Irizarry said, referring to the forced conversions and mass expulsions of Jews in late medieval Spain.


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