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Taino Language Studies & Learning Resources

Updated: Dec 17, 2023


taino language, taino language resources
Region of Classic Taino Language

“En todas estas islas eran una lengua y misma costumbres.” (In all these islands there was one language and same customs) - Bartalomé de Las Casas 1500's (1)

As descendants of those who survived the Native American Holocaust, we, the Taino people of the Greater Antilles, hold a special responsibility to uphold the legacies of our indigenous language, rich culture, and ancient history passed down by our ancestors. Before delving into our ancestral language, it's important to understand who the Taino people were then and who we are today. In 1492, Columbus was discovered lost at sea by the Island Arawaks, who are now commonly referred to as the Taino. The origin of the word "Taino" is still a subject of debate, but the most widely taught story is that upon meeting Columbus, our ancestors referred to themselves as "Taino" or "Nitaino", meaning "good" or "Noble Ones." This is why the indigenous people of the Caribbean are now commonly known as the Taino.


In our ancestral language, the addition of "-no" at the end of a word makes it plural. It is possible our ancestors were saying Taino (good ones) or Nitaino (Noble Ones) to differentiate between our island people and other island tribes that were ancestral enemies. I don't mind people calling us the good or noble ones, so I have no problem identifying as a Taino. However, I also think that Boricua is what our ancestors would say to someone when asked, "Cat bu taís?" (Where are you from), and we still say it today. Boricua! We say it loud and passionately, as if the name creates an instant connection with one another and our homeland, no matter where you are in the world. (2)


That is because it does, and if you are on a journey of reconnecting with your indigenous past from Boriken, Ocama! (Listen)...it doesn't matter where you are from, in my personal opinion. We all share one undeniable bond, born on the island or not born on the island. Our blood ties to the land of our ancestors. The DNA evidence flies in the face of false extinction myths. You are who our ancestors prayed for, and have a place among your people. This can never be taken away from. If you have one drop of Taino blood, you are Taino. Mabrika! (Welcome!)


Our people possess a rich and enduring history that predates the arrival of Europeans. Our culture and heritage have persisted from the earliest acts of resistance against colonization by our indigenous ancestors to more recent discoveries in mitochondrial DNA studies. We are the descendants of the Island nations that first encountered the Spaniards, and our survival can be attributed not only to the indigenous blood that runs through our veins but also to our boricua customs, unique island traditions, and the continued use of our ancestral language in both our homelands and the diaspora. Our brothers and sisters from other island nations also celebrate and protect their indigenous identity. We honor them and their efforts as well.


This unique identity among the islands carried a beautiful language that early explorers and chroniclers described as being pleasing to the ear. Little did our ancestors know the impact our native language would have on the languages of the world. Approximately 30% of Native American Island Arawak words adopted by the Spanish and also used by other European languages are of Taino origin. (3)


The impact of indigenous languages on the history and evolution of speech is tremendous. These languages serve as the foundation for culture, spiritual beliefs, and a direct connection to one's ancestral origins. They provide a framework for interacting with the world and understanding life. There is ongoing linguistic debate surrounding the classification of Arawakan language groups, which is understandable given that it is the mother tongue of many tribes across South America and the Southeast United States.


Island Arawak was mainly spoken in Kuba, Haimaica, Kiskeya, Boriken, and the Bahamas. It is commonly believed that the Taino dialect of Island Arawak originated from an Arawak foundation rooted in Proto-Maipurean. The Arawakan or Maipurean languages are primarily spoken in the West Indies and the northern coast of South America.

taino indian arawak language tree
Language Tree - Arawak Linguistics

[The Arawakan] name is the one normally applied to what is here called Maipurean. Maipurean used to be thought to be a major subgroup of Arawakan. Still, all the living Arawakan languages, at least, seem to need to be subgrouped with languages already found within Maipurean as commonly defined. The sorting out of the labels Maipurean and Arawakan will have to await a more sophisticated classification of the languages in question than is possible at the present state of comparative studies. (4)


Meanwhile, the Greater and Lesser Antilles indigenous people will continue to work within their communities to restore, revitalize, and rejuvenate our language within the context of our unique dialects. There are many who have worked diligently to preserve, study and restore our language, and they all deserve honor and respect for tackling what may seem to be an insurmountable task. Their linguistic efforts help build and rebuild our collective indigenous identity from what has been lost, stolen, or hidden.



 

"The wisdom of humanity is coded in language. Once a language dies, the knowledge dies with it." Proffesor L. Campbell Director of University of Utah's Center for American Indian Languages

 

Dr. Pamela Serota Cote said that looking at language in any way other than the personal, collective way for humanity to connect misses why language is crucial to identity.


“We understand things, events, ourselves and others through a process of interpretation, which occurs in language," she argues. "The diversity of our languages represents the richness of our expressiveness of Being. This is how language, culture, and identity intersect; it is also why the loss of a language is such a concern and why minority language rights is such an emotionally charged issue in countries around the world. Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past."


"Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose, and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going. The loss of language undermines a people's sense of identity and belonging, which uproots the entire community in the end. Yes, they may become incorporated into the dominant language and culture that has subsumed them, but they have lost their heritage along the way." Dr. Pamela Serota Cote (5)


 

As indigenous communities, families, and contemporary Taino language researchers and students, we are working to achieve this goal, one word at a time. As descendants of the tribes that made the first contact, it's our responsibility to carry forward the traditions and knowledge passed down through our families. We must be willing to listen to each other's stories, appreciate our expressions of art, and speak our language in order to reclaim what was taken and rebuild what remains.


An ancient indigenous proverb says, "A thousand voices are needed to tell one story."


Tell your story...


Yah Yah kakonabo guakia ara o'ta yuaceyekeno

(The Supreme Spirit of Spirits great blessings on all our people and villages)

 

RESOURCES FOR STUDYING TAINO LANGUAGE

The availability of resources for students of the Taino language is increasing as more research is conducted. The Descendants of Puerto Rico's First Nations are actively contributing to the revival of our language. We offer a live, four-part series of foundational and basic Taino classes throughout the year. Additionally, we would appreciate any information on other language resources specific to the island of Boriken. Here are the books that I suggest for our weekly class. The first three are essential, while the remaining books are for advanced studies.


Examples of sentences in Boricau Ahiya:


Da ro guarí apíto - "I love you forever"

Da iri ka ____ - "My name is ____"

Daca taís Boriken - " I am from Boriken"

Guaiba! - "Lets go!"

Da guatu duho Hayuya "My sacred fire sits in Hayuya"


Boricua Ahiya Language Studies Reference Books:

Taino Stories:


 

Sources:

(1) Bartolomé de las Casas, (1552) A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

(2) Porrata Ph.D, Richard Morrow Keeping the Taino Language Alive: Advanced Studies in Taino Syntax (2020) by Prof Richard Morrow Porrata Ph.D.

(3) Granberry, J. &. (2003). Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press

(4) Kaufman, Terrence. (1990). Language history in South America: What we know and how to know more. In D. L. Payne (Ed.), Amazonian linguistics: Studies in lowland South American languages (pp. 13–67). Austin: University of Texas Press. (5) Wallace. Lane (2009). What's Lost When a Language Dies. The Atlantic. Boston, Ma







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