Do you speak Taino? 7 Indigenous Taíno Words You Probably Already Know
The Taíno people were a peaceful people with a complex society who lived on the islands of the Greater Antilles of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Taíno language was a soft, sweet and melodious language that lacked harsh gutturals. It flowed quickly and contained many vowel sounds. The Taíno language is part of the Arawak language family that was widespread in South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Florida.
Other Arawak languages are still spoken today, but most scholars agree that no one alive today is fluent in the Taino language. Therefore, it is considered an extinct language. However, there are those who are trying to revive it. At least one teacher is teaching the “extinct” Taino language to his students! More power to him!
The Taíno people, including their language and culture, were the first to be decimated by the Spanish who arrived in the New World beginning in 1492. Their methods of conquest were often cruel. As such, they would not allow the Tainos to speak their native language.
Well, you know how they say “something good never dies!” This is certainly true in the case of the Taíno language. Many Taíno words were adopted by the Spanish and other Europeans. These adopted words are called “loan words” in linguistic circles, and many are in very common use in English, Spanish, and French. There are many words in English, especially American English, that are English versions of the Spanish or French versions of Taíno words that they phonetically incorporated into their own language, since the Taínos had no written language.
Here are 7 indigenous Taino words that are so common in the English language now that I bet you use them all the time:
Meat and potatoes is American home cooking, right? Mistaken! The word “potato” comes directly from the Taíno language. When the Spanish arrived in the New World they had never seen or eaten a potato. The Taínos were accomplished farmers and shared their sweet potato, which they called “batata”, with the Spanish. Columbus himself delivered the “sweet potato” to Queen Isabella after her first voyage. On subsequent voyages, Columbus and his men discovered the white potato in Peru called “papa” by the indigenous people. Somehow, the “p” in “papa” got added to “batata” and the Spanish word for potato became “patata” and the English version became “potato.” Well, the rest is history, as they say, because we all know how prevalent the potato is these days.
For a long time, the white potato took second place to the sweet potato in Europe. In fact, the white potato was called “bastard potato” for a long time. Anyway, the next time you order mashed potatoes or microwave a large potato for a quick meal, remember the Taino. Instead of calling your fries “freedom fries”, maybe you can call them “taíno fries” out of respect for those who lost their freedom.
Okay, let’s get on with the food for a minute. The origin of the term “barbecue”, which is often spelled various ways in American English, is controversial with passionately opposing views. However, most scholars of linguistics seem to agree that the term, or one very similar to it, originated in the Taíno language.
According to Peter Guanikeyu Torres, president and chief of the council of the Taíno Indian Nation of the Caribbean and Florida, the Taíno word “barabicu” meant “the sacred fire pit.” This is probably where the word “barbecue” is derived from in American English. He describes a structure for cooking animal meat very slowly, which traditionally consisted of a wooden platform supported by branches and leaves of green pepper trees.
When Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, the Taínos were under attack by another Arawak people, now known as the Carib. The Tainos told Columbus and the other Spaniards about another group of people who mostly lived in the Lesser Antilles who were ferocious and had captured and eaten them. They referred to these people as caribal, which loosely meant fierce and brave. The Spanish corrupted this into “cannibals”, which was later anglicized into “cannibals”. The Taíno may also have pronounced “caribal” more like “cannibal” because in Arawak languages the consonants l, n, and ra are sometimes interchangeable. It should be noted that the Carib people called themselves something closer to “Kalinago”.
Many historians have found that Columbus had little to no evidence that the Caribs were actually cannibals, surely not as much as he described them to be. The Caribs were fierce warriors who put up much more resistance to the European conquerors. Some scholars believe that Columbus used the word “cannibals” as a pejorative term to paint them as monsters and discredit them, thus making it easier for his men to conquer them. Unlike the Taíno, there are some full-blooded Caribs still living today, but very few.
Seeing how the Taínos lived on his first voyage to the New World, Columbus wrote in his diary: “…they had cotton nets for beds, stretched between two posts.” Later in his diary he wrote, “…many Indians in canoes came to the ship today for the purpose of bartering their cotton and hammocks or nets in which they sleep.” There is little doubt that the English word “hammock” is an anglicized version of the Taino word, “hamacas,” as the Spanish spelled it phonetically in Spanish.
Before Columbus’s arrival in the New World, cotton was little known. It is believed that seeing how strong and durable hammocks woven from cotton thread were sparked his interest in cotton for clothing and other products that soon followed.
Columbus had never seen a manatee before when he arrived in the New World, so he did not have a name for it. This is why the Spanish almost immediately adopted the Taíno word for manatee, “manati.” This often happens when someone from a different culture encounters something new for the first time. “Manatee” is the English version of “manatee”.
The manatee must have seemed like a really strange creature. At first, in fact, Columbus mistook the manatee for a mermaid, half woman and half fish. In fact, in his journals, after seeing the manatees, he wrote that the mermaids were not as beautiful as people thought. Manatee means “breast” in the Taino language because manatees have mammary glands that resemble those of human females. The idea that the word manatee is a corruption of the Spanish word for mano, “hand”, because the manatee’s front flippers look like hands, has been shown to be false and the similarity mere coincidence.
Like the manatee, Columbus and the other Spaniards had never seen anything like a hurricane. In fact, they didn’t see a hurricane on their first trip to the New World, where they enjoyed near-perfect weather. However, on their second and third voyages to the New World, they were hit by strong hurricanes. In fact, the new settlement, Isabella, that Columbus had recently established was completely wiped out. Needless to say, these Caribbean hurricanes left a lasting impression.
Having never seen a weather pattern like a hurricane before, they adopted the Taíno word and spelled it phonetically as “hurakan.” Of course, the English version of this is “hurricane”. The Taíno word hurakan was used not only to describe the actual weather event, but also the path of destruction it left in its wake, such as fallen trees and other devastated landscapes. I like this concept and I tend to think of hurricanes this way as well. In the Arawak tradition, the Taínos called their storm god Hurakan and feared and revered him.
The word “canoa” is the English version of the Taíno word spelled phonetically in Spanish as canoa. The early English spelling of this word varied considerably: cano, canow, canoe. However, by around 1600, canoe had become the most accepted spelling.
The word canoe is a good example of a “ghost word”, which is a word whose meaning or origin is incorrectly recorded in an authoritative reference. Therefore, it becomes widely accepted and it is difficult to correct the misperception once it has permeated a society. For a long time, most people thought that the word “canoe” originated from a word used by one of the native peoples of what is now the United States. However, this turns out to be false and was caused by a scribal transcription error in the late 15th century.
There you have it, 7 common English words that you’ve probably been using most of your life: potato, barbecue, cannibal, hammock, manatee, hurricane, and canoe. It is touching to think that the words of a language that has been declared extinct live on as everyday words spoken by so many. Every time you speak these 7 Taíno words, you honor the Taíno people who were forbidden to speak their own language as a tool to conquer them.