Proto-Garífuna Language


One of the problems in understanding this stage of Garífuna language – the language of the native St. Vincentians before the Africans acquired the language – is the nomenclature used in the literature for the Arawaks and the Caribs.

The Arawaks were not the first tribe into the Caribbean, but they probably were the most populous, settling in almost every island by at least 1200AD. In time, the group had separated into distinct cultures; in the north the Arawak descendants were known as the Taino and in the South they were known as the Inyeri. Nevertheless, their language was mutually intelligible across the Antilles. This was noted by the earliest explorers to the area who wrote that from island to island, the Indians all seemed to speak the same language.

The Caribs are a different story. Christopher Columbus was warned by Taino Indians to stay away from the south islands, because ‘down there’ lived an evil and ferocious tribe called the canima or caniba who ate human flesh. Columbus didn’t speak Taino and he wrote down this word as best he could, writing ‘caribe’. In time, any Indian that was rebellious or prone to warfare was known as “Caribe” or “Carib” by all Europeans, whether or not he was a Carib. It wasn’t long before this word took on a negative connotation, meaning anthropophagous humans (cannibals) as well. No one thought to ask them what they called themselves…. until Father Raymond Breton arrived.

Father Breton, a friar in the Dominican order, landed on Guadeloupe in 1635 with three other friars with the idea of evangelizing the native peoples. Breton made frequent trips to Dominica where he spent a total of five years between 1641 and 1653. Breton and his friars were the only Europeans allowed on the island by the Indians at this time. He asked the “Carib” Indians what they called themselves and their response was that they referred to themselves as “Kalipona”. They added that their ancestors were the Galíbi people of South America, with whom they still maintained communication and commerce. (As will be shown in Early Garífuna, the word ‘Garífuna’ was born as a result of the African pronunciation of the word Kalipona.)

To avoid confusion and to strengthen the fact that this ethnic group was not Carib, this web site refers to this group as Kalípona. The Kaliponas are indeed a result of two cultures, the Arawak Inyeri and another migration of native peoples from South America (see below). In addition, I developed the terminology ‘proto-Garífuna’ to refer to the language that was spoken by the Kalípona exclusively on St. Vincent before the Africans acquired this language and made it their own.

Proto-Garifuna Language

Although there were Kalípona people throughout the Lesser Antilles (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Guadeloupe), proto-Garífuna language pertains to the variety spoken specifically on St. Vincent, in that this is the very island in which an African population came together and acquired the native people’s culture and language. They lived together for generations, fought together, survived together, and as a single entity, were forcibly removed from St. Vincent together.

What we know specifically of the St. Vincent variety of the Kalípona language is nothing, since there were no transcriptions taken. However we do have Raymond Breton’s dictionary which is based on the variety of Kalípona spoken on Dominica and Guadeloupe. According to linguist Douglas Taylor, these dialects of the Kalípona language would have been very close to one another.

During the mid 1600s, Breton noticed that the men and women seemed to speak a differently from one another, and his Kalípona hosts had told him that the women “had retained something of their language”. For this reason, Breton (and the Kalípona) though it was the Carib language with some Arawak words. Breton even called it “la langue Caribe”. It wasn’t until centuries later when linguists determined that in fact it was the Arawak language with some Carib words. But how did those two languages come together?