The grammatization of European vernacular languages began in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance and continued up until the end of the 18th century. Through this process, grammars were written for the vernaculars and, as a result, the vernaculars were able to establish themselves in important areas of communication. Vernacular grammars largely followed the example of those written for Latin, using Latin descriptive categories without fully adapting them to the vernaculars. In accord with the Greco-Latin tradition, the grammars typically contain sections on orthography, prosody, morphology, and syntax, with the most space devoted to the treatment of word classes in the section on “etymology.” The earliest grammars of vernaculars had two main goals: on the one hand, making the languages described accessible to non-native speakers, and on the other, supporting the learning of Latin grammar by teaching the grammar of speakers’ native languages. Initially, it was considered unnecessary to engage with the grammar of native languages for their own sake, since they were thought to be acquired spontaneously. Only gradually did a need for normative grammars develop which sought to codify languages. This development relied on an awareness of the value of vernaculars that attributed a certain degree of perfection to them. Grammars of indigenous languages in colonized areas were based on those of European languages and today offer information about the early state of those languages, and are indeed sometimes the only sources for now extinct languages. Grammars of vernaculars came into being in the contrasting contexts of general grammar and the grammars of individual languages, between grammar as science and as art and between description and standardization. In the standardization of languages, the guiding principle could either be that of anomaly, which took a particular variety of a language as the basis of the description, or that of analogy, which permitted interventions into a language aimed at making it more uniform.
Missionary grammars are printed books or manuscripts compiled by missionaries in which a particular language is described. These grammars were mainly written as pedagogical tools for language teaching and learning in a missionary-colonial setting, although quite a few grammars have also a more normative character. Missionary grammars contain usually an opening section, a prologue, in which the author exhibits the objectives of his work. The first part is usually a short introduction into phonology and orthography, followed by the largest section, which is devoted to morphology, arranged according to the traditional division of the parts of speech. The final section is sometimes devoted to syntax, but the topics included can vary considerably. Sometimes word lists are appended, containing body parts, measures, counting, manners of speaking, or rhetorical figures. The data presented in the grammar are mainly based on an oral corpus, whereas in other cases high registers from prestigious texts are used in which the eloquence or elegance of the language under study is illustrated. These grammars are modeled according to the traditional Greco-Latin framework and often contain invaluable information regarding language typologies, semantics, and pragmatics. In the New World, Asia, and elsewhere, missionaries had to find an adequate methodology in order to describe typological features they had never seen before. They adapted European models to new linguistic realities and created original works which deserve our attention within the discipline of the history of linguistics alongside contemporary pedagogical works written in Europe. This article concentrates on sources written in Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin during the colonial period, since these sources outnumber the production of missionary grammars in other languages.