Lexica Jesuitica: Missioner Dictionaries of Madagascar

Malagasy Dictionaries

Three French-Malagasy dictionaries. John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns Library owns copies of the three earliest French-Malagasy dictionaries, dating from 1853, 1888, and 1899. These three volumes uniquely document the histories of Madagascans and their changing place in the world during the turbulent decades of the late 19th century.

The first of these dictionaries was published in precarious circumstances. The volume opens with an austere title, and its publishers call themselves the Catholic Missionaries of Madagascar. Their claim was more aspirational than actual: the publication information reveals that their work was headquartered on the distant French island of Réunion (formerly Île Bourbon) some five hundred miles away.

Dictionnaire Malgache-Français (1853)

Title Page from Dictionnaire Malgache-Français, 1st edn. (1853). 03-24399 General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

This dictionary consequently shows the struggles of missionaries striving for a toehold in Madagascan society. The abbreviations guide explains how it derived its contents from an earlier “dictionnaire hova,” published in Antananarivo (formerly Tananarivo). Antananarivo was the capital of the highland kingdom of Merina, whose subjects spoke the Hova dialect of central Madagascar. The Merina monarchs had previously allowed the London Missionary Society to operate in Antananarivo, but when British-Merina relations cooled, these evangelical missionaries published a dictionary based on the Hova dialect and abandoned further work.

The Merina kingdom continued resisting foreign influence throughout the mid-1800s, and the Catholic missionaries from Réunion had little choice but to rely on the earlier English dictionary for the Hova dialect. But as the title page notes, the French dictionary had also been “adapted into the dialects of each province,” augmenting the Hova vocabulary with words taken from local and specialized dialects. This emphasis on non-Hova dialects reflects an attempt to circumvent the hostile Merina kingdom, focusing instead on the peripheral societies along the coasts. Conversely, by accommodating these missionaries, the coastal communities were asserting their independence from isolationist Merina rule.

Malagache Dictionnaire 1888

Title Page from Dictionnaire Malgache-Français (1888). PL5376.A2 Williams Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The second edition of this dictionary, published in 1888, reflects strikingly different circumstances. The format is larger, less likely to be carried by an itinerant missionary, more likely to rest on a shelf. It was published by Jesuits working in Antananarivo, suggesting a new position of institutional strength for Catholics in Madagascar. And the regional dialects have been left out, showing decreased interest in the peripheries and the increasing consolidation of Merina power, as the Hova dialect assimilated the vocabularies of subordinated regions.

As the editors noted: “We provide only those words which are used in the common Hova language. We believe this will be sufficient, since Hova is understood almost universally. Furthermore, as relationships have increased among the various tribes, many words from the provincial dialects are being used even in Antananarivo, so that words unique to other dialects are relatively few.”

Dictionnaire Malgache-Français, 3d edn. (1899)

Introduction to Dictionnaire Malgache-Français, 3d edn. (1899). The handwritten notes appear to be emendations for an intended 4th edition (never published). 09-000014587 General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The third edition of this dictionary was published in 1899, also in Antananarivo. It exudes even greater confidence. The preface speaks to “the many French who have come to Madagascar,” and it promotes its use for “the great many Madagascans who have enthusiastically begun to study French.” The editors go on to assert that the French language has become “an essential necessity for all those who would enter into relations of sympathy or interest with the motherland.” What happened, then, that these dictionaries so quickly changed in tone, from one of restraint to one of confidence, going so far as to proclaim France to be the motherland of Madagascar?

In the years following the first edition in 1853, Merina isolationism had softened, in part due to conflicts within the ruling family. One aspiring prince agreed to privilege French traders in exchange for their support, but the Merina monarchs who succeeded him revoked these concessions and began to court British interests instead. In response, a French expeditionary force invaded the island in 1883.

Jacques Berthieu (1838-1896)

Jacques Berthieu (1838-1896), Jesuit Priest and Martyr of Madagascar.

The result was ambiguous. The French claimed Madagascar as a semi-autonomous colony, but the Merina government rejected this relationship. These were the uncertain years when the 1888 edition of the French-Malagasy dictionary was published, with the Catholic missionaries claiming a position of strength in the Merina capital.

But Madagascan resistance to colonial rule led to a second conflict. In an uprising against the French, many missionaries and Catholic converts suffered, including the sainted Jesuit martyr, Jacques Berthieu. French troops ultimately defeated the Madagascans, and by the time the 1899 French-Malagasy dictionary proclaimed France as the motherland of Madagascar, colonial rule was a fait accompli.

French-Malagasy dictionaries may seem an unlikely record of these events, but their changing tone and content provide unique insight into decades of Merina isolationism and rapprochement, Jesuit hardship and sacrifice, and French conquest and colonialism. These dictionaries add a new perspective to this story, showing how peripheral communities resisted the expanding rule of Merina isolationists, pointedly accepting European missionaries and teaching them their local dialects; and later how these local dialects were suppressed as political consolidation homogenized Malagasy language and Madagascan culture, a work begun by the Merina and continued by the French.

These French-Malagasy dictionaries are part of the Jesuitica Collection of the Burns Library. They are among other rare Jesuit dictionaries documenting the languages of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, such as a Visayan-English dictionary (Philippine Islands, 1928) and a Chinese-Latin dictionary (Xianxian, 1930). To learn more about the Jesuitica Collection and the Burns Library, please visit the digitized book and manuscript holdings in the BC Libraries Digital Collections or read about exhibits of the Jesuitica Collection on the Burns exhibits page. If you have further questions or would like to do research in the Jesuitica collection, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Matthew Delvaux, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of History.
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