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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The New Cityscape

Creole society gradually matured and became conscious of its own identity. This coincided with a marked increase in commerce. The face of the cities was transformed accordingly. Their societies had been steadily changing, but now their physical features began to change as well: there was growth, a certain opulence and an openness to the world of commerce, both of goods and of ideas. All this began to alter the features of the baroque city.

The streets and market places announced the change. In 1774 Frézier observed this in that there was a multitude of black people: 19 out of every 20. He often saw passing by in the streets white men riding on sedan chairs, each borne by four black men. This was the same social scene that other travelers observed in other Hispanic and Portuguese cities: the privileged and the nonprivileged differed in many respects, but above all in number. The streets, the market places, the churches, the arcades were teeming with this new multitudes of people who, no matter what their explicit rights might be, regarded as their own right to be, as they increasingly were, an important part of urban life.

They were a complex and varied multitude. At the end of the day, each social group would go back to their neighborhood. But as long as the business of the day was in progress, all groups, even the most exclusive ones, would mingled with one another. Buying and selling were functions that brought all groups together and, for an instant, made everyone an equal. This is perhaps why so many travelers and observers noticed that women, who filled the streets and the marketplace, would return home with something they had purchased, but also with something they had heard and learned. Mulattas and mestizas observed the dress, habits, and language of their elegant customers and tried to imitate them. Their customers, in turn, became familiar with popular usage and ended up with a taste for the lively colored dresses of the townspeople, their typical foods, the vernacular words they were introducing into Spanish, the phrases and expressions of popular coinage:

In the main square you’ll see
The subtlest concepts expressed
By any whichever greengrocer,
By any butcher whatsoever.

As Ayanque observed in Lima, the people in the street,

Although with dark-skinned faces,
Have the sharpest of wits.

And if one accepted the pottery or fabric they were selling, one had to be prepared to accept as well their superstitions and beliefs, their traditional remedies and their body language. Even worship became hybridized: Christianity and native religions were being fused, not just among the castes but among whites as well. And as everyone ended up worshiping mestizo icons, a city as conservative as Olinda would allow the batuque, a dance introduced by black slaves, to be performed, on festive days, in front of the main church.

Women from the upper classes were free to move in that multicolored world. In São Paulo and in Lima, the shawl or mantilla in which they wrapped themselves became topics of conversation. But the attire could equally conceal a marchioness or a mulatta, and the bold behavior of these tapadas (“hidden by the shawl”) began to blur the usual distinctions between social groups. From the small shops to the marketplace, one could see women going about until they found what they were looking for. Haggling over the quality or price made them more conversant, although the dialogue actually began at home, between the lady of the household and her female servants. In the meantime, gentlemen of the upper class, whose occupation and business required them to have daily contact with the castes, sought out their company in their leisure time and found it in an often steady mistress, in the places of amusement or in gaming houses.

Where the money flowed, like in Potosí or Vila Rica, gambling and wantonness were rampant. A rich mine owner might lose a fortune at the gambling table and finish off the night spending just as much on prostitutes, most of them mulattas. Viceroys—Amat in Lima and Solís in Bogotá, for example—could be brought down by scandal. Gambling and prostitution were important in bringing the upper classes and castes into contact with each other. Hovering around the gamblers and prostitutes was the underworld, with murderers and thieves carrying swords, carbines, or pistols, as Concolorcorvo described them, and the world of rogues and beggars that Fernández de Lizardi portrayed in Periquillo Sarniento, a mirror image of life in the Mexican capital on the eve of Independence. In Coplas del ciego de la Merced, Castillo Andraca y Tamayo, a Lima clergyman, gave his version of that city’s underworld, just as Concolorcorvo did with those he found along his long journey.

Such a diverse society had no need of well-defined lifestyles. If the social groups were unstable, so were their forms of behavior. Traditional lifestyles were preserved only in provincial cities and in those that had ceased to develop. But in the cities that kept on growing and in those where a new Creole society, with its mix of class and caste, was rapidly taking shape, some form of anomie prevailed, which was a sign of intense social mobility. Only the upper classes knew what their place was and, consequently, what the rules were that governed them. The middle and lower classes were extremely fluid; and it was precisely this fluidity that provoked the acute crisis that followed independence. The crisis was, in the end, a fruitful one, because it produced a new social order, and it came out of the normal ebb and flow of the social process that went beyond the limits and constraints of the system the conquest had established. No one knew who was who in the middle and lower classes of a city—especially a port or capital—that was growing thanks to new activities which offered unexpected opportunities to people and groups who, until then, had had no mobility at all.

A diverse multitude, rich in shades of color, varied in customs and economic positions, poured into the city for holiday festivities, particularly bullfights and processions. Order reigned at the official center of the festivities. The notables of the city gathered on the stage for the coronation of Charles IV; notables also were those who surrounded the royal standard and those who rode in the procession to celebrate the swearing in of the new king—as they did in Bogota in 1789 under the leadership of Lieutenant Major don Luis de Caicedo. But the streets were lined with common people watching the procession and catching the coins that marching noblemen were tossing at them. That motley society enjoyed the spectacle, the lights, anything that would break the routine of daily life. They would fight with each other over a tossed coin; they would peek in on the ceremony. But they also enjoyed their own parties and celebrations, for which they would buy sweets and fried meat from the countless vendors who circulated among them. They drank pulque or chicha, danced and sang in their own streets and finally went home, carrying with them the sense that they were the “populace,” a group entirely different from the “decent folk.” It was rare for whites to attend the parties and gatherings of the castes, as Concolorcorvo attests in reference to Cuzco.

But only for the “decent folk” the so-called “populace” was a cohesive social group. Among the common people themselves, it was every man for himself. Each one knew he was part of a fluid whole and would rise or fall in social position by his own wits and with his own luck. In their daily struggle, each would try to step on whoever was under him in order to move up, and he would try to imitate those who were above him in order to become, as soon as possible, indistinguishable from them.

These were times of ferment, and some used them as an opportunity to learn how to read and write. Some even used that knowledge to read books or the occasional newspaper that by then was beginning to circulate in several capitals: the Mercurio Volante in Mexico City, the Mercurio Peruano in Lima, the Papel periódico de Santa Fe in Bogota, the Primicias de la cultura de Quito, in Quito, and the Telégrafo Mercantil in Buenos Aires. Such interest in what was happening in the world was more common in the upper classes, but news traveled and circulated in coffee-houses, that at the time were just beginning to be established in the cities; and it was in those coffee-houses that members of different classes mingled and shared their opinions. In the new theaters and sports stadiums and in public parks and promenades, this patchwork society had an opportunity to mingle with the upper classes, each wearing the clothing appropriate to the position he occupied or aspired to occupy in the social scale.

Clothing became a peculiar problem in these urban societies, where the desire to show off one’s social position and the concern for social climbing were not simply a personal obsession but the visible signs of a certain philosophy of life, of an ideology. Signs of the same ideology were house and carriage, jewels and servants, everything that meant social status. On a small scale, but very dramatically, this drive to alter reality was apparent in the upper levels of the lower classes, especially among mestizos and mulattos; which was understandable, for each of them it was a question of escaping the anonymity of the group in order to achieve an individual identity and bridge the chasm that kept him apart from the privileged classes. But the concern was just as great among the privileged classes themselves, because for many it was just as difficult to keep up their position as it was for others to finally achieve it, especially when wealth became easier to acquire and the process of acquisition itself became considerably faster. Tremendous effort went into trying to appear to be what one wasn’t:

Women who are anxious to flaunt
Their luxury and glamour,
Get themselves in all kinds of binds
To keep up with their undertakings.

These women are all bedecked
In rather expensive jewels,
In skirts made out of silk,
In diamonds, in costly earrings,
In feathers, tiaras, hanging pendants,
In overlying smocks,
In fine lace and braided ribbons,
And other myriad adornments.

And believing they are theirs,
We find out, friend, rather quickly
That all these things have been rented
And they owe everything they have.

This was how Ayanque described the exertions of Lima’s upper-class women to protect their position and prestige. But, in a more philosophical vein, Fernández de Lizardi had one of his characters reflect explicitly upon this obsessive preoccupation in a society that was not so much mobile as it was mobilized by the quick pace the mercantilist movement had introduced: “The poverty one sees so often in the most populated cities is made of nothing other than the inordinate opulence with which everyone tries to move beyond his own station. . . . . Women with little prudence make quite a contribution to the ruin of an entire household with their importune vanity. It is not uncommon in such homes to see luxury enthroned. The wife or daughter of a physician, attorney or some such type wants to have a house, servants and a position that rivals or at least equals that of some wealthy aristocrat; such women get their fathers or husbands into debt. Sooner or later such men become debtors; what little they have is sold, their credit is lost and the family is ruined.” And he concludes as follows: “So, in all truth, it is sheer madness to pay in order to appear to be what one is not, only to reveal in the end what one actually is at the price of dishonor.”

In fact, this obsessive concern of the upper classes with their rank or station was a vestige of the world of hidalgos that had survived in a society that was changing and embracing the forms of life of the European bourgeoisie in the Age of Enlightenment. An extreme concern for decorum was the mark of the groups that constituted the “nobility” of the cities. But their nobility was dubious at best. Talking about Lima’s aristocracy, Concolorcorvo wrote the following:

In this city there are many people with the title of count or marquis and an even greater number of knights of the orders of Santiago and Calatrava. With but a few exceptions, they have sufficient income to live quite luxuriously. They include the heirs to estates and gentlemen who live off their properties and other businesses that provide them a handsome living and lend some polish to the city. I am certain that in the city of their birth and in the others of this vast vice royalty, there are some illustrious families; however, when added together they do not equal the population of this city, which pays little attention to the conquistadors. For although some of them were from illustrious families, the number of such families increased after the conquest.

And referring to the upper classes in Cordoba, Argentina, Concolorcorvo noted, not without irony, “I don’t know how these farmers manage to prove the old and glorious lineages they claim to have.”

The fact is that, whether they belonged to the old nobility or not, these upper classes tried to preserve a “noble form of life” with an elegant home, fine tableware, coaches, and servants. Humboldt, who visited such homes in Caracas, Bogota, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and Havana in the early part of the nineteenth century, remembered their dwellers as being urbane, friendly and simple in their manners; but what struck him most was the interest that many families had in the mercantile world and in having access to an education in accord with the Age of the Enlightenment. Humboldt was a keen observer and he undoubtedly noticed the pervasive power of the new ideas and the widespread reach of the new bourgeois attitudes, which were not at all incompatible with the desire to preserve some vestige of the old aristocratic world. Indeed, aristocratic families frequently gathered in parties and literary circles. At a salon in Buenos Aires, in 1773, Concolorcovo saw some 80 women “fashionably dressed and coifed, very adept at French and Spanish dance.” Still, this evening party could not compare with the splendor of the great courts. Apart from the more mundane gatherings, literary circles became more and more popular, although by that time they tended to discuss politics, philosophy, economics, and science more than literature. At around that time, Father Juan Baltasar Maziel established his quite respectable library in Buenos Aires; but still it was not comparable to the well-stocked libraries in other capitals. These libraries helped produce intellectuals like Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora in Mexico or Pedro de Peralta Barnuevo and Pablo de Olavide in Lima. Later, the generation of the forerunners of Independence would prefer revolutionary political works to mere erudition: Nariño, Torres, Santa Cruz y Espejo, Tiradentes, Egaña, Villava, Moreno, Monteagudo. And almost unnoticed, some groups were devoting themselves to the study of the sciences, for instance, a circle, in Bogota, that was headed by the scientist by José Celestino Mutis and, after him, by Francisco José de Caldas.

The upper classes satisfied their needs with mundane activities—salons, promenades, visits novenas—and intellectual life. Yet, they were not entirely idle; for many were busy trying to shore up their financial position with the opportunities offered by the opening up of ports, both before and after Independence. Little by little, cities began to be politicized. Urban populations were divided into groups along ideological lines, progressive or traditionalist, and tensions began to mount. Every decision by the authorities was either disputed or defended, depending upon whose interests were affected or how it was interpreted. What was once discussed only in private was now the subject of passionate public debate. The battle lines were being drawn. Inside the revolutionary movements, urban groups began to coalesce, generally under the leadership of the new Creole middle classes, although individuals with no vested interest did sometimes take the lead. And when these middle classes came to power, the collapse of the traditional structure unleashed the forces of the new Creole society, not yet fully constituted and still uncertain about its aims even in victory. This new society was divided into groups with conflicting interests; and it was driven by the passionate desire of each one of its members to move up in the social scale and improve their economic situation.

The years that followed the independence movements changed the physiognomy of the cities. Many took on a Jacobean character that hastened the change in mentality among groups much larger than those originally involved in the revolution. Some cities, on the contrary, saw their more conservative groups close ranks. Even in the Jacobean cities, these conservative groups succeeded in thwarting the first emancipatory moves. But none of this happened without a struggle. The monotony of the baroque city was followed by a constant turmoil that made visible each one of the groups that considered itself entitled to participate in the new political process: the prominent figures in government office, the people in the main square, the conspirators in army barracks, those who had once spoken in the privacy of literary circles, the pamphleteers. This was how the new society gradually matured. Once inert, this society now sprang into action and made its mark on the Creole city.

Evidence of change was also apparent in the physical layout of the city. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, cities had generally grown very slowly. But in the last decades of the century, the pace of growth accelerated, especially in the cities that felt the impact of increased trade. More and better houses began to be built on what had once been vacant lots, as the city started to fill out. Urban population increased and groups that had taken root in the city began to take a more active part in its affairs. There were, of course, many cities that did not grow. By the end of the eighteenth century, important cities like Concepción and Valparaiso in Chile had only 5,000 inhabitants. Asunción and Montevideo, soon to be capitals, hovered at around 10,000, as did Cordoba, Oruro, Barquisimeto, and São Paulo. Bogota had a population of 20,000, while Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Buenos Aires had populations of 40,000. Lima’s population was 60,000, and Salvador de Bahia and Mexico City had populations of over 100,000. For the European traveler, Mexico City was the most striking. Humboldt wrote in 1803:

Mexico is undoubtedly one of the finest cities ever built by the Europeans in either hemisphere. With the exception of Petersburg, Berlin, Philadelphia and some quarters of Westminster, there does not exist a city of the same extent which can be compared to the capital of New Spain, for the uniform level of the ground on which it stands, for the regularity and breadth of the streets, and the extent of the public places. The architecture is generally of very pure style, and there are edifices of very beautiful structure.

This enormous creation had taken only three centuries to come into being. In time, Latin American cities had to start addressing the problems that arose from their own expansion and demographic growth. Progressive officials made note of the daily problems caused by urban disarray and some of them began to apply modern thinking to the planning of what until then had come about in a spontaneous and disorderly way. Revillagigedo in Mexico City, Amat in Lima, Vértiz in Buenos Aires, González Torres de Navarra in Caracas, Mestre Valentín in Rio de Janeiro, and others on a lesser scale took measures to improve the general appearance of the cities and the way they functioned. Since 1753, São Paulo had a “road officer” in charge of putting order into the confusion of streets and alleys. Other cities undertook to regularize the layout of their streets, section off free space, improve public thoroughfares and walkways and establish building codes. But the greater concern was with how the city functioned. All the groups of this heterogeneous society began to crowd the public spaces of the cities, and basic sanitation became one of the first concerns of urban authorities. Many of the capitals improved the water supply of their public fountains and also their sewer systems; rudimentary forms of public lighting began to be installed. Hospitals, cemeteries and hospices were created. More important still was the organization of a city police force, that until then had been unnecessary; for, indeed, this new and diverse society fostered all forms of marginal behavior that threatened the peace of the city. Murderers and thieves would hide not only in their own slums but also in gambling houses, brothels, and taverns. And it became increasingly difficult to identify these types in the mixed society that filled the market places and the streets.

Lower-class suburban neighborhoods began to appear. Beyond the twenty or thirty blocks closest to the main square, there were fewer and fewer buildings; just beyond that, depending upon the city, the urban-rural border began. Somewhere around the border separating the city from the countryside, the suburb began to appear, a wretched clutch of little farms or huts sometimes built around a tavern or a chapel, sometimes near the slaughterhouse or some out-of-town market or square where carts were parked. Here was where the poorest people lived, and those who were growing produce to sell in the city market or were looking for a place to practice their trade or set up their business. But the suburb was also a stopover for those who were moving from the countryside to the cities or were fleeing the cities to go to the countryside. The result was an unstable and marginal population that at times brushed with crime.

The emergence of the suburbs was part of a process in which different neighborhoods acquired a definite identity. There were some upper-class suburbs, where the privileged kept summer homes; but the upper classes normally lived in the center of the city. The blocks next to the central square were the most prestigious ones, and some streets established the tone of an entire neighborhood: some were lined with the homes of the most distinguished families, others would gather all the retailers or craftsmen of the same trade. And the more distant parishes, where houses were constantly going up, became the lower-class neighborhoods. Few if any whites were seen in these neighborhoods, for in them their dwellers recovered the sense of belonging they had to set aside in order to deal with their customers or satisfy their employers in the daily hustle and bustle of the market place. In these neighborhoods they celebrated their own festivals, in their own fashion, and silently imposed their own standards of living, even though their self-styled autonomy would sometimes be challenged by sheriffs and constables.

Some of the cities vulnerable to outside attacks erected new forts, using eighteenth-century techniques of military engineering. Others erected walls or reinforced the ones already existing. These were monumental constructions, like the ones of Cartagena de Indias, which would make most secular and religious architecture look rather modest by comparison. Yet this was not always the case. In the cities that were expanding, the upper classes did not hesitate to invest enormous amounts of money in order to build ornate churches and beautiful palaces. In the second half of the eighteenth century, two wealthy Mexican mine owners, Jose de la Borda and Antonio de Obregón y Alcocer, built two jewels of the Baroque period: Santa Prisca in Taxco and San Cayetano de la Valenciana in Guanajuato. Wealthy bandeirantes populated the mining city of Vila Rica with churches, adorned by the sculptures of Aleijadinho. In cities like Bahia and Quito, already filled with churches, more were added and existing churches were given new facades or expanded, all thanks to the economic splendor of the last decades of the eighteenth century. Permanent churches went up where temporary buildings had once been. This was how the churches of San Ignacio and Nuestra Señora del Pilar came into being in Buenos Aires, as did those of Santiago, where the architect Joaquin Toesca built the cathedral in a severe neo-classic style that his disciples would replicate in Santiago and elsewhere.

Toesca’s masterpiece, however, belongs to civil architecture: it is La Moneda Palace in Santiago, which represented the triumph of Neoclassicism forty years after the Governor’s Palace was built in Vila Rica. In the meantime, the growth of the cities had stimulated the construction of another type of public building. The Potosi Mint was built in the mid-eighteenth century owing to all the mining activity in the area. Because of the need for grain, construction began in 1798 on the Granaditas Corn Exchange in Guanajuato. But the most important buildings were the city halls. Each city had to have its own hall, whether modest or monumental. Where there was no building deemed worthy of preserving—like the Casas Consistoriales in Tlaxcala, a magnificent sixteenth-century construction—a new one was built, generally with arcades and a clock tower that was to be a symbol of municipal life.

Urban building improved as society and wealth grew. The rich displayed their good fortune by replacing their old homes with lavish palaces. But few could equal the palatial mansions of Mexico City. Those along San Francisco Street or Tacuba Street were so beautiful that Mexico City came to be called the “city of palaces.” Those designed by Manuel Tolsa, an architect with neo-classical leanings like Toesca, include the Palace of Iturbide, the palace of the Marquis del Apartado, as well as the one that housed the Mining School. There were palaces in other cities as well, even if not so grand in scale: the palace of the Marquis de Torre Tagle in Lima, the palaces of Villaverde and Arana in La Paz, the palace of Joäo Rodrigues de Macedo in Vila Rica, the palace of the Marquis de Maenza in Quito, and the palace of Diego de Rul in Guanajuato, which was done by the neo-classic architect Francisco Eduardo de Treguerras. Humboldt stayed in the last of these and wrote that it “would be an ornament to the finest streets of Paris or Naples.”

Of course, not all Latin America’s cities could boast such splendor. But many benefited in some measure from the economic recovery. The few that experienced a full renaissance were, for the most part, the ports, the capitals and those cities in which good fortune triggered an explosion of wealth. Vila Rica was one such case; and the gold that flowed from the city had an impact on Rio de Janeiro. Rio became prominent again in 1808, when it housed the Portuguese court and became the capital of the kingdom, with a port that welcomed trade with England. Something similar happened in almost all the port cities and capitals, which were invigorated first by the free trade their mother countries had sanctioned and then by actual trade with the European countries and the United States. Other capitals were added to this process of expansion when Spain introduced a new administrative system in 1788: Puebla, Valladolid, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Mérida, Culiacán, Arequipa, Tarma, Huancavélica, Huamanga, Cuzco, Puno, Santa Marta, Cartagena, Santa Cruz de la Sierra; the seats of local government in Venezuela—Maracaibo, Guayana, Mérida, Cumaná, La Margarita—had already been added in 1777. In the process, new urban bureaucracies came into being which stressed the role these cities had already played as hub of development for their region. In the meantime, new cities appeared. In 1724, Montevideo was founded as a military base; but, little by little, the city grew both as a regional center and as a port, especially after 1791, when it became one of the centers of slave trade for the Rio de la Plata region, and for Peru and Chile. Towns became cities as they attracted more and more people from the countryside. Thus, among many others, emerged such cities as Talca and Los Andes in Chile. Others emerged on their own, as a result of some very productive business that made them strong from the start. This was the case of Vila Rica, which became an unequalled center of commerce in just a few years. A new aristocracy settled there and gave it such a strong burst of energy that a chronicler once wrote that it was the “head of all America. Its wealth makes it Brazil’s most precious pearl.” But Vila Rica was a restless city, with a revolutionary bent: twice it rose against the metropolis, first in 1720 and again in 1789; and twice, it was forced into submission. One of the participants in the uprising of 1789, Claudio Manoel da Costa, wrote a poem in praise of the city, entitled Vila Rica. Both that poem and the satiric verses of Cartas chilenas, which were also attributed to da Costa, describe in detail different aspects of life in the city. Something similar happened in the case of Puerto Cabello whose spontaneous coming into being are recorded by Andrés Bello in a piece he wrote shortly before the start of the independence movement, titled Historia de Venezuela (History of Venezuela) for the Calendario manual y guia universal de forasteros en Venezuela para el año 1810 (Handy Calendar and Universal Guide for Foreigners in Venezuela for the year 1810):

Endowed by nature to accommodate and re-outfit the entire Spanish Navy, Puerto Cabello was the anchorage that the Dutch from Curaçao chose for the cacao trade. The center of this port town, which for a long time seemed more like a Dutch dependency than a Spanish territory, consisted of a handful of miserable huts used by smugglers and some cabins owned by fishermen. The Government wanted to establish some semblance of law and order in this community of men, whose character and occupation must have made public tranquility very tenuous indeed. But these were men who had engaged in crime with impunity. Their individual private interests, coupled with the general interests of the Dutch, were such that the people of Puerto Cabello stubbornly opposed the government’s intentions until at last it was forced to abandon its plan to place Puerto Cabello under its authority. Soon the town became a den of criminals and the Dutch colonies’ general warehouse on the coast. With the exception of cacao, Venezuela had nothing that would attract Spanish ships to Venezuelan ports. The Dutch, however, had the cacao trade very much in hand and managed to gain a monopoly over a country whose only supply source for personal effects and agricultural provisions were the warehouses of Curaçao. Puerto Cabello was the only way it could get its agricultural commodities out and earn revenues. And so, through one of those political coincidences that is easier to marvel at than to explain, the Province of Venezuela became another monopoly as useful in its creation as it was ruinous in its abuses. Thanks to the monopoly, Venezuela’s agriculture would begin to develop. With a mercantile company taking it by the hand, the country began to take the first steps toward progress. The mother country recouped a trade area that had been unfairly removed from under its authority and Puerto Cabello became one of the most important stopovers and the most respectable port on the coast.

Speaking of ports, in 1723, José Agustín de Oviedo y Baños wrote in his Historia de la conquista y población de la Provincia de Venezuela (History of the Conquest and Settlement of the Province of Venezuela) that the people of Caracas “speak the Castillian language perfectly, not the improper speech one tends to find in other ports in the Indies.” And almost a century later, Fernández de Lizardi, writing about scoundrels, said the following: “I have lived in one port and have known and dealt with others.” Cities were a fitting setting for the profound transformation that Creole society was undergoing, especially those that welcomed new ideas and abandoned all prejudices, included those about the forms of language that people used.