Garifuna Language Policy

Garifuna Language Policy

  • Garifuna Language Policy

by Martha Clayton


The Garifuna language developed on the Caribbean island of Yurumein (Taylor: 2012: 9), now called St. Vincent. Garifuna has been referred to by many names including Island Carib, Central American Island Carib, Black Carib, Kalipona, and Cariff. It is a member of the Arawak language family and is a language descendant of Ineri. Kaufmann classified Garifuna as being a branch of the Ta-Maipurean language family Ineri (Kaufmann 1994: 46-76), whereas Aikhenvald re-designated Ineri outside of the Ta-Arawakan stock, by creating the Caribbean Arawakan stock, in order to highlight the distinct genetic unity of the Caribbean (Aikhenvald 1999: 65-73). Aikhenvald’s classification also serves as acknowledgement of the unique linguistic history that is the result of extensive language contact, beginning with Carib.


During the pre-colonial era, speakers of Ineri were conquered by Carib speakers resulting in the development of an Arawak-Carib pidgin (Aikhenvald 1999: 65-73). This triggered a distinction between women and men’s speech. Although the spread of linguistic competence in Ineri eventually facilitated dissolution of this diglossia, elements of this linguistic event are still present in modern Garifuna men’s speech and neutral speech (Munro et al. 2012: 14). This contact event resulted in the foundation language that Suazo refers to as Caliponam (Suazo 1991:5), which would eventually incorporate additional features introduced by the African languages Bantu and Akan. Although only a few words from these languages survive and the exact circumstances surrounding the introduction of African peoples to the population of St. Vincent remains unclear, it is this integration that is credited with the birth of contemporary Garifuna (Suazo 1991:5). After Europeans arrived, a century long battle with British colonial forces eventually led the Garifuna people into exile, first to Baliceaux Island and then to the small island of Roatan, Honduras where, like the Wampanoag experience in 1616 (Little Doe Baird 2013: 19), they suffered catastrophic loss of life due to a “malignant pestilence fever” (Taylor: 2012: 144). An estimated 4776 Garifuna men, women and children left Yurumein (St. Vincent), but when they finally reached their last British-enforced destination of displacement, the Port of Trujillo in Honduras in 1797, their population numbers had been reduced to 1465 (Taylor 2012: 136-160). However, the Garifuna quickly reestablished themselves as a diasporic community along the coast of the Caribbean and their population recovered as they integrated into the fishing and agriculture economy (Taylor 2012: 148-158).


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Clayton, M. (2013). Garifuna Language Policy. (University of California Los Angeles)


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