Garifuna language

Last updated
Native tonorth coast of Honduras and Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast
RegionHistorically the Northern Caribbean coast of Central America from Belize to Nicaragua
Ethnicity Garifuna people
Native speakers
possibly 190,000 (1997) [1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cab
Glottolog gari1256 [2]
Recording of a Garifuna speaker

Garifuna (Karif) is a minority language widely spoken in villages of Garifuna people in the western part of the northern coast of Central America.

Central America central geographic region of the Americas

Central America is located on the southern tip of North America, or is sometimes defined as a subcontinent of the Americas, bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south. Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The combined population of Central America has been estimated to be 41,739,000 and 42,688,190.


It is a member of the Arawakan language family but an atypical one since it is spoken outside the Arawakan language area, which is otherwise now confined to the northern parts of South America, and because it contains an unusually high number of loanwords, from both Carib languages and a number of European languages because of an extremely tumultuous past involving warfare, migration and colonization.

Arawakan languages language family

Arawakan, also known as Maipurean, is a language family that developed among ancient indigenous peoples in South America. Branches migrated to Central America and the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, including what is now the Bahamas. Only present-day Ecuador, Uruguay, and Chile did not have peoples who spoke Arawakan languages. Maipurean may be related to other language families in a hypothetical Macro-Arawakan stock.

A loanword is a word adopted from one language and incorporated into another language without translation. This is in contrast to cognates, which are words in two or more languages that are similar because they share an etymological origin, and calques, which involve translation.

The language was once confined to the Antillean islands of St. Vincent and Dominica, but its speakers, the Garifuna people, were deported en masse by the British in 1797 to the north coast of Honduras [3] from where the language and Garifuna people have since spread along the coast south to Nicaragua and north to Guatemala and Belize.

Dominica country in the Caribbean

Dominica, officially the Commonwealth of Dominica, is an island country in the West Indies. The capital, Roseau, is located on the western side of the island. It is part of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The island is located near Guadeloupe to the northwest and Martinique to the south-southeast. Its area is 750 km2 (290 sq mi), and the highest point is Morne Diablotins, at 1,447 m (4,747 ft) in elevation. The population was 71,293 at the 2011 census. The Commonwealth of Dominica is one of the Caribbean's few republics.

Honduras republic in Central America

Honduras, officially the Republic of Honduras, is a country in Central America. In the past, it was sometimes referred to as "Spanish Honduras" to differentiate it from British Honduras, which later became modern-day Belize. The republic of Honduras is bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the southwest by El Salvador, to the southeast by Nicaragua, to the south by the Pacific Ocean at the Gulf of Fonseca, and to the north by the Gulf of Honduras, a large inlet of the Caribbean Sea.

Guatemala republic in Central America

Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala, is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Caribbean to the northeast, Honduras to the east, El Salvador to the southeast and the Pacific Ocean to the south. With an estimated population of around 16.6 million, it is the most populated country in Central America. Guatemala is a representative democracy; its capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.

Parts of Garifuna vocabulary are split between men's speech and women's speech, and 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 2008 along with Garifuna music and dance. [4]

The Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity was made by the Director-General of UNESCO starting in 2001 to raise awareness of intangible cultural heritage and encourage local communities to protect them and the local people who sustain these forms of cultural expressions. Several manifestations of intangible heritage around the world were awarded the title of Masterpieces to recognize the value of the non-material component of culture, as well as entail the commitment of states to promote and safeguard the Masterpieces. Further proclamations occurred biennially.

Garifuna music is a type of music found in Central America, primarily on the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.


Garifuna is spoken in Central America, especially in Honduras (146,000 speakers),[ citation needed ] but also in Guatemala (20,000 speakers), Belize (14,100 speakers), Nicaragua (2,600 speakers), and the US, particularly in New York City, where it is spoken in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. [5] By the 1980s, the influx of Central Americans made languages including Garifuna begin having a presence in Houston. [6] The first feature film in the Garifuna language, Garifuna in Peril , was released in 2012. [7]

Belize country in Central America

Belize is a country located on the eastern coast of Central America. Belize is bordered on the northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. It has an area of 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 sq mi) and a population of 387,879 (2017). Its mainland is about 180 mi (290 km) long and 68 mi (110 km) wide. It has the lowest population and population density in Central America. The country's population growth rate of 1.87% per year (2015) is the second highest in the region and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

Nicaragua Country in Central America

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordered by Honduras to the northwest, the Caribbean to the east, Costa Rica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. Managua is the country's capital and largest city and is also the third-largest city in Central America, behind Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City. The multi-ethnic population of six million includes people of indigenous, European, African, and Asian heritage. The main language is Spanish. Indigenous tribes on the Mosquito Coast speak their own languages and English.


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 are that they were the survivors of two recorded shipwrecks or they somehow took over the ship on which they came. The more Western and Central African-looking people were transferred by the British from Saint Vincent to islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1796. [8]

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 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 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.[ citation needed ]


The vocabulary of Garifuna is composed as follows:

Also, there also some few words from African languages.

Comparison to Carib

[9] [10]

Carib Garifuna
Europeanparanakyry (one from the sea, parana)baranagüle
goodiru'pairufunti (in older texts, the f was a p)
gardenmainamainabu (in older texts, maina)
small vesselkurijaraguriara
birdtonorodunuru (in older texts, tonolou)
rainkonopogunubu (in older texts, konobou)
windpepeitobebeidi (in older texts bebeité)
water, rivertunaduna (in older texts tona)
sandsakausagoun (in older texts saccao)
islandpa'wuubouhu (in earlier texts, oubao)

Gender differences

Relatively few examples of diglossia remain in common speech. It is possible for men and women to use different words for the same concept such as au ~ nugía for the pronoun "I", but 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 "person" 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 grammatical gender:

singular, male speakersingular, female speakerplural
1st personaunugíawagía
2nd personamürübugíahugía
3rd personligíatugíahagía

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

Plural of nouns

Pluralization of nouns is irregular and is realized by means of suffixing:

The plural of Garífuna is Garínagu.


Possession on nouns is expressed by personal prefixes:


For the Garifuna verb, the grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical mood, negation, and person (both subject and object) are expressed by affixes, partly supported by particles.

The paradigms of grammatical conjugation are 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,[ citation needed ] which, in today's French, is apparent at "80":

The use of French borrowings rather than Carib or Arawak terms is unclear, but may have to do with their succinctness, as numbers in indigenous American languages, especially those above ten, tend to be longer and more cumbersome.[ citation needed ]


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal mnɲ
Plosive voicelessptk
Fricative fsh
Approximant wlj
Tap/Flap ɾ
Front Central Back
Close iɨu
Mid ɛ~eɔ~o
Open a

/o/ and /e/ are allophones of /ɔ/ and /ɛ/. [11]

Other words

The language uses prepositions and conjunctions.


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


  1. Garifuna at Ethnologue (14th ed., 2000).
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Garifuna". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Dreyfus-Gamelon, Simone (1993). "Et Christophe Colomb vint...". Ethnies. Chroniques d'une conquête (14): 104.
  4. "Language, dance and music of the Garifuna". 2008. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  5. Claudio Torrens (2011-05-28). "Some NY immigrants cite lack of Spanish as barrier". Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  6. Rodriguez, Nestor, "Undocumented Central Americans in Houston: Diverse Populations," p. 5.
  7. "Independent Honduran-American Film "Garifuna in Peril" Will Premiere in Honduras". Honduras Weekly. October 17, 2013. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
  8. Crawford, M. H. 1997, Biocultural adaptation to disease in the Caribbean: Case study of a migrant population Archived November 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine . Journal of Caribbean Studies. Health and Disease in the Caribbean. 12(1): 141–155.
  9. "A Caribbean Vocabulary Compiled In 1666". United Confederation of Taino People. Archived from the original on May 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-20.
  10. "Kali'na Vocabulary". Max Planck Digital Library. Archived from the original on 2012-03-14. Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  11. Haurholm-Larsen, Steffen (2016). A Grammar of Garifuna. pp. 18–21.

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