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Garifuna language

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Title: Garifuna language  
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Subject: Honduras, Culture of Nicaragua, Taíno language, Central America, Nicaragua
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Garifuna language

Native to Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast
Region Historically the Northern Caribbean coast of Central America from Belize to Nicaragua
Ethnicity Garifuna people
Native speakers
unknown (undated figure of 200,000)[1]
(98,000 in Honduras cited 1993)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cab
Glottolog gari1256[2]

Garifuna (Karif) is a member of the Arawakan language family albeit an atypical one since, 1) it is spoken outside of the Arawakan language area which is confined to the northern parts of South America, and 2) because it contains an unusually high number of loanwords, from both Carib and a number of European languages, attesting to an extremely tumultuous past involving warfare, migration and colonization. The language was once confined to the Antillean island of St. Vincent and Dominica, but due to twists of fate its speakers landed on Mainland Honduras from where the language has since spread south to Nicaragua and north to Guatemala and Belize. In later years a large number of Garifuna people has settled in a great number of larger US cities, presumably as part of a more general pattern of north bound migration.

Since colonial times and until as recent as the latter half of the 20th century the language was known to non-Garifuna communities as Carib or Black Carib and Igñeri.

Parts of Garifuna vocabulary are split between men's speech and women's speech, i.e. some concepts have two words to express them, one for women and one for men. Moreover, the terms used by men are generally loanwords from Carib while those used by women are Arawak.

The Garifuna language was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009 along with Garifuna music and dance.


Garifuna is spoken in Central America, especially in Honduras (about 146,000 speakers), but also in Guatemala (about 20,000 speakers), Belize (about 14,100 speakers), Nicaragua (about 2,600 speakers), and within the USA, particularly New York City, where it is spoken in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.[3] By the 1980s, due to the influx of Central Americans, new languages including Garifuna began having a presence in Houston.[4]


The Garinagu (singular Garifuna) are a mix of West/Central African, Arawak, and Carib ancestry. Though they were captives removed from their homelands, these people were never documented as slaves. The two prevailing theories is that they were either the survivors of two recorded shipwrecks, or somehow took over the ship they came on. The more West/Central African-looking people were transferred by the British from Saint Vincent to islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1796.[5]

Their linguistic ancestors, Carib people, who gave their name to the Caribbean, once lived throughout the Lesser Antilles, and although their language is now extinct there, ethnic Caribs still live on Dominica, Trinidad, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent. The Caribs had conquered the previous population of the islands, Arawakan peoples like the Taino and Palikur peoples. During the conquest, which was conducted primarily by men, the Carib married Arawakan women. Children were raised by their mothers speaking Arawak, but as boys came of age, their fathers taught them Carib, a language still spoken in mainland South America. When European missionaries described the Island Carib people in the 17th century, they recorded two unrelated languages—Carib spoken by the men and Arawak spoken by the women. However, while the boys acquired Carib vocabulary, after a few generations they retained the Arawakan grammar of their first language. Thus Island Carib as spoken by the men was genetically either a mixed language or a relexified language. Over the generations, men substituted fewer Arawak words, and many Carib words diffused to the women, so that the amount of distinctly male vocabulary diminished, until both genders spoke Arawak with an infusion of Carib vocabulary and distinct words in only a handful of cases.


The vocabulary of Garifuna is composed as follows:

  • 45 % Arawak (Igñeri)
  • 25 % Carib (Kallínagu)
  • 15 % French
  • 10 % English
  • 5 % Spanish or English technical terms

Apart from that, there also some few words from African languages.

Comparison to Carib


Carib Garifuna
man wokyry wügüri
woman woryi würi
European paranakyry (one from the sea, parana) baranagüle
good iru'pa irufunti (in older texts, the f was a p)
anger/hate areku yeregu
weapon/whip urapa arabai
garden maina mainabu (in older texts, maina)
small vessel kurijara guriara
bird tonoro dunuru (in older texts, tonolou)
housefly werewere were-were
tree wewe wewe
lizard/iguana wajamaka wayamaga
star arukuma waruguma
sun weju weyu
rain konopo gunubu (in older texts, konobou)
wind pepeito bebeidi (in older texts bebeité)
fire wa'to watu
mountain wypy wübü
water, river tuna duna (in older texts tona)
sea parana barana
sand sakau sagoun (in older texts saccao)
path oma üma
stone topu dübü
island pa'wu ubouhu (in earlier texts, oubao)

Gender differences

Relatively few examples of diglossia remain in common speech, where men and women use different words for the same concept, such as au ~ nugía for the pronoun "I". Most such words are rare, and often dropped by men. For example, there are distinct Carib and Arawak words for 'man' and 'women', four words altogether, but in practice the generic term mútu is used by both men and women and for both men and women, with grammatical gender agreement on a verb, adjective, or demonstrative distinguishing whether mútu refers to a man or to a woman (mútu lé "the man", mútu tó "the woman").

There remains, however, a diglossic distinction in the grammatical gender of many inanimate nouns, with abstract words generally being considered grammatically feminine by men, and grammatically masculine by women. Thus the word wéyu may mean either concrete "sun" or abstract "day"; with the meaning of "day", most men use feminine agreement, at least in conservative speech, while women use masculine agreement. The equivalent of the abstract impersonal pronoun in phrases like "it is necessary" is also masculine for women, but feminine in conservative male speech.


Personal pronouns

With independent personal pronouns, Garifuna distinguishes masculine and feminine gender:

singular, male speaker singular, female speaker plural
1st person au nugía wagía
2nd person amürü bugía hugía
3rd person ligía tugía hagía

The forms au and amürü are of Cariban origin, the others are of Arawakan origin.

Plural of nouns

Pluralization of nouns is irregular, it is realized by means of suffixing. For example:

  • isâni "child" – isâni-gu "children"
  • wügüri "man" – wügüri-ña "men"
  • hiñaru "woman" – hiñáru-ñu "women"
  • itu "sister" – ítu-nu "sisters"

The plural of Garífuna is Garínagu.


Possession on nouns is expressed by personal prefixes:

  • ibágari "life"
  • n-ibágari "my life"
  • b-ibágari "your (singular) life"
  • l-ibágari "his life"
  • t-ibágari "her life"
  • wa-bágari "our life"
  • h-ibágari "your (plural) life"
  • ha-bágari "their life"


On the Garifuna verb, the grammatical categories tense, aspect, mode, negation, and person (both subject and object) are expressed by means of affixes, partly supported by particles.

The paradigms of conjugation are very numerous.


The conjugation of the verb alîha "to read" in the present continuous tense:

  • n-alîha-ña "I am reading"
  • b-alîha-ña "you (singular) are reading"
  • l-alîha-ña "he is reading"
  • t-alîha-ña "she is reading"
  • wa-lîha-ña "we are reading"
  • h-alîha-ña "you (plural) are reading"
  • ha-lîha-ña "they are reading"

The conjugation of the verb alîha "to read" in the simple present tense:

  • alîha-tina "I read"
  • alîha-tibu "you (singular) read"
  • alîha-ti "he reads"
  • alîha-tu "she reads"
  • alîha-tiwa "we read"
  • alîha-tiü "you (plural) read"
  • alîha-tiñu "they (masculine) read"
  • alîha-tiña "they (feminine) read"

There are also some irregular verbs.


From "3" upwards, the numbers of Garifuna are exclusively of French origin and are based on the Vigesimal system, which in today's Standard French is only apparent at "80":

  • 1 = aban
  • 2 =biñá, biama, bián
  • 3 = ürüwa (< trois)
  • 4 = gádürü (< quatre)
  • 5 = seingü (< cinq)
  • 6 = sisi (< six)
  • 7 = sedü (< sept)
  • 8 = widü (< huit)
  • 9 = nefu (< neuf)
  • 10 = dîsi (< dix)
  • 11 = ûnsu (< onze)
  • 12 = dûsu (< douze)
  • 13 = tareisi (< treize)
  • 14 = katorsu (< quatorze)
  • 15 = keinsi (< quinze)
  • 16 = dîsisi, disisisi (< "dix-six" → seize)
  • 17 = dîsedü, disisedü (< dix-sept)
  • 18 = dísiwidü (< dix-huit)
  • 19 = dísinefu (< dix-neuf)
  • 20 = wein (< vingt)
  • 30 = darandi (< trente)
  • 40 = biama wein (< 2 X vingtquarante)
  • 50 = dimí san (< "demi cent" → cinquante)
  • 60 = ürüwa wein (< "trois-vingt" → soixante)
  • 70 = ürüwa wein dîsi (< "trois-vingt-dix" → soixante-dix)
  • 80 = gádürü wein (< quatre-vingt)
  • 90 = gádürü wein dîsi (< quatre-vingt-dix)
  • 100 = san (< cent)
  • 1,000 = milu (< mil)
  • 1,000,000 = míñonu (< engl. million?)

Other types of words

The language uses prepositions and conjunctions.


The word order is verb–subject–object (VSO).


  1. ^ Garifuna at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Garifuna". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Claudio Torrens (1011-05-28). "Some NY immigrants cite lack of Spanish as barrier". Retrieved 2013-02-10. 
  4. ^ Rodriguez, Nestor, "Undocumented Central Americans in Houston: Diverse Populations," p. 5.
  5. ^ Crawford, M. H. 1997, Biocultural adaptation to disease in the Caribbean: Case study of a migrant population. Journal of Caribbean Studies. Health and Disease in the Caribbean. 12(1): 141–155.
  6. ^ "A Caribbean Vocabulary Compiled In 1666". United Confederation of Taino People. Retrieved 2008-05-20. 
  7. ^ "Kali'na Vocabulary". Max Planck Digital Library. Retrieved 2012-03-23. 


  • "Garifuna (Black Carib)". Native Languages of the Americas. Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  • Langworthy, Geneva (2002). "Language Planning in a Trans-National Speech Community" (Archive). In: Barbara Burnaby and Jon Reyhner (eds), Indigenous Languages Across the Community, Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University, pp. 41–48.
  • Munro, Pamela (1998). 'The Garifuna gender system'. In Hill, Mistry, & Campbell (eds), The Life of Language: papers in linguistics in honor of William Bright.
  • Rodriguez, Nestor P. (University of Houston) "Undocumented Central Americans in Houston: Diverse Populations." International Migration Review Vol. 21, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 4-26. Available at JStor.
  • Palacio, Clifford J. "A Caribbean Vocabulary Compiled in 1666". The United Confederation of Taíno People. Archived from the original on 2007-01-01. Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  • Palacio, Clifford J. "Online Garifuna Lessons". Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  • Josephs, K. Marie. "Garifuna". Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  • Suazo, Salvador (1994). Conversemos en garífuna (2nd ed.). Tegucigalpa: Editorial Guaymuras. (written in Spanish)

External links

  • Garifuna Research Institute
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Garifuna version (sample text)
  • A Caribbean Vocabulary Compiled in 1666 (lists of older Garifuna words) at Internet Archive
  • Garifuna, Endangered Language Alliance
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