A Brief Summary of the Origin, and Survival of the Taino Language
by David Wahayona Campos
The Greater Antilles, lying in the center of the Caribbean region, contain the four largest islands of the area. The islands of Cubanakan (Cuba), Boriken (Puerto Rico), Bohio (Haiti/Republica Dominica), Xamaika (Jamaica), as well as the Lucayo (Bahamas) all share a universal language with some dialectal differences. In the late 1500s Bishop Las Casas stated “En todas estas islas eran una lengua y misma costumbres.”
The Taino language of the Greater Antilles is related to the Arawakan stock stemming from South America, “the people of the Arawak language family still comprise on of the more widespread indigenous culture within relatively large kinship nations in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins of South America.” (Barreiro, 1990) The language of the central Arawak or Lokono (meaning the “people”), and the Garifuna currently of Central America, are prime examples
that are closely related to the Taino language, which is sometimes referred to as “Island-Arawak.”
The Carib of neighboring islands such as Waitukubuli [Dominca] also fused their Cariban language with that of the Eyeri and Taino peoples. Island-Carib men took Eyeri and Taino wives, thus enabling the women to past down their languageto their children. An “Island- Carib” dictionary, translated into French was complied by Father Raymond Breton on theisland of Dominica in 1665. Today we know that the dictionary is a fusion between the Island-Cariband Arawak languages. The bulk of the dictionary is now identified as “Arawakan.”
In 1797, the so-called “Black-Caribs” (due to racial mixing) or Garifuna of St. Vincent were exiled by the British and moved to the “Bay Islands” (present day Islas dela Bahia) off the northern coast of Honduras. The Caribs of Dominica were never removed and remain there till this day. The Garifuna, speak a Creole language, which still retains components of their indigenous origins.
It is interesting to note that the syntax structure and affix/suffix structure of the Garifuna language is primarily of Arawakan-Maipure origin, making it a valuable component in the reconstruction of the Taino language. There are an estimated 77,000 Garifuna alive today. Their spoken dialect is one of the closest to the Taino or Island- Arawak language.
Contrary to what has been thought and taught by some, the Taino language was not completely extinguished. Portions were absorbed overtime into the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Spanish spoken in Boriken retains over 600 Taino words. A considerable amount of Taino words are also used in Quisqueya and Cuba.
Among words of indigenous origin are objects, geographical names, personal names as well as flora and fuana. A few contemporary cities and towns in Boriken include Yabucoa, Bayamon, Coamo, Ceiba, Caguas, Guanica, Areciboetc. Throughout all the islands, a majority of native trees, fruits and rivers also retain their Taino names. The name of insects, birds, fish, and other animals alone reach into the hundreds. Other common words of Taino origin include conuco (garden), coa (digging stick), macuto (knapsack), canoa (canoe), hamaca (hammock), and toto/or xoxa (vagina), etc. These words and many more are so common that they are thought to be of Spanish origin. There are many who are “bilingual” inthe sense that they use Taino and Spanish words interchangeably; for example, the Spanish word buho and the Taino word mucaro for owl. “The prevalence of these words suggest a prolonged period of Taino-Spanish interaction where by these names could be wholly incorporated into the Spanish language”. (Ferbel 1995)
Many Taino words are used as adjectives and verbs. For example, the phrase “dar mucho katei” and “joder la pita” means to be very bothersome. “Duro como el guayacan” refers to a person in good shape and “tiene unos macos bonitos” means having pretty eyes.
The distinct nasal sounds in the contemporary speech of many “Boricuas” and others from neighboring islands is of Taino origin. The pronunciation of the aspirated “H” is a common trait of the Arawakan language. Also it is quite likely that the transformation of words ending in the suffix-ado into ‘ao’, which
originated in parts of Spain, was adopted by the indigenous population due to its similarity to existing Taino language structures! Some example of this is ‘colorado’ becomes colorao, ‘apurado’ becomes apurao, and ‘cansado’ becomes cansao. It can also be considered that Caribbean Spanish is in fact a hybrid language.
Taino villages continued to exist into the 18th century and Taino consciousness to the present day. A census taken in Quisqueyain 1777 revealed that out of the 400,000 total population, 100,000 were of Taino-European descent and 60,000 of Taino-African descent (Emilio Rodrigues de Demorizi). An un-official census in 1799 in the town of San German revealed alarge indigenous population in Boriken. “Throughout the Caribbean; usually in remote mountain ranges and coastal promontories, remnant groups and communities of Taino- Arawak and Carib descendants survive to the present” (Jose Barriero, 1990). In Cuba, there is a strong Guajiro – Taino presence in
various towns in the eastern most provinces, such as the Baracoa region. There is also a Carib reserve on the island of Dominica, where Caribs continue to make canoas in the traditional fashion just as our ancestors did. Thus the native language continued to thrive in small enclaves throughout the Caribbean islands.
We can speculate that one of the last fluent speakers of “la idioma Taino” on the island of Cuba passed away around 1910. There is also another case on the island of Puerto Rico in which a recording made in the early 1970s of an elderly woman living in the Indieras of the Lares region, retained some fluency in the indigenous tongue of Boriken. The recordings (which have been unattainable to UCTP) are said to be stored at La Universidadde Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras.
Present studies have been made on the Taino language such as “Diccionario de Voces Indigenas de Puerto rico” by Luis Hernandez Aquino (1993), “Glosario Etimological Taino – Espanol” by Perea (1941), “Arqueologia Linguistica (Estudios Modernos Diriggidos Al Rescate y Reconstruccion de lArahuaco Taino” by Dr. Manuel Alvarez Nazario. Current works are in progress to continue the work of reviving the Taino language.
In conclusion, the purpose of this brief informative summary is to educate and create an awareness to enable today’s Tainos (and our Carib neighbors) to continue to honor our beautiful and ancient living heritage. Language is an expression of one’s culture. Slowly (but surely) through these continuing efforts, we will begin to see a reemergence of the Taino language in generations to come.
UCTP Taino News Moderator’s Note: “A Brief Summary of the Origin, and Survival of the Taino Language” by David Wahayona Campos was published in “La Voz del Pueblo Taino” News Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3 (July/August 1999) by permission of the author.