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Replacing the manaka
The previous section explained Proto-Garífuna as the language spoken by the native
St. Vincentians before the arrival of the Africans. The native St. Vincentians (as
well as the native peoples of Guadalupe and Dominica) described themselves as Kalípona
and not Carib. The name ‘Carib’ was what the Tainos called the Kalínago (‘Carib’
was not a negative word, it simply mean cassava-eaters). However, since the Tainos
told Christopher Columbus they were called something like ‘Carib’, this name spread
among Europeans and stuck. Proto-Garífuna reflects early colonization as seen by
a handful of Spanish and English loan words, as well as a few hundred French stems.
We are lucky enough to know about this language because of Father Raymond Breton,
who lived among the Kalínago and composed a dictionary based on their language. This
dictionary also demonstrates evidence of an African presence among them, as seen
in a few vocabulary entries such as cóheti íoma for someone with thick lips, kilili-abali
itibouri for ‘nappy hair’ or méguerou for ‘Black person’. Although the native peoples
of South America referred to themselves as Galibi, this website continues to refer
to these South Americans as Carib, in the hopes that the concepts will be easier
It is important to understand that this was one single language spoken by both men
and woman, not an Arawak language spoken by women and a Carib language spoken by
men as commonly reported. Moreover, the Carib “language” was never a full language
spoken in the Caribbean. The men spoke the same Arawak language as the women, but
the men used more Carib words in order to engage in trade business with the native
peoples of South America. As young boys entered into the trade business with their
fathers, they too learned these extra Carib words. Upon analysis of many different
texts, Douglas Taylor, specialist in native Caribbean languages, contends that with
the decrease in trade among Caribbean Kalínago and South American Galibis (Carib),
the Carib element of Kalípona language has begun its descent.
Early Garífuna Language (1635-1797)
Early Garífuna Language
Despite a lack of evidence of a shipwreck in which Africans were left stranded on
St. Vincent, I have chosen a start date of 1635 for the beginning of Early Garífuna
language for two reasons. One is out of respect for Garífuna oral tradition that
the first shipwreck did happen in that year. The other is that whether or not there
was a shipwreck, by that year there would have been enough Africans to form a formidable
group on St. Vincent.
Development of Garífuna language
Meanwhile, while the African population on St. Vincent was growing, so was the community
of French colonists. For the Kalípona, they were not only interested in small-time
trade with the French, but the French also helped the Kalínago keep the British away
– at first. Soon, the Garífuna community was so large by 1700 that it would be fair
to say that the Garínagu were living among the Kalínago and not under their rule.
Tensions became so tight that the Kalínago asked the governor of Martinique how
to handle the Garínagu, and the governor’s answer was the divide the island (figuratively,
of course) in half, giving the Garínagu the eastern part of the island and the Kalínago
could remain on the western half.
The Garínagu were happy to move to another side of the island and even invited some
of the French to come with them – again not as an altruistic move but to help them
keep the British away. It is in this manner that even more French words entered
the Garífuna language. +Just as it had been in the early days when the French conquered
the British Islands, French became a language of prestige among the Garínagu. At
first there would have been lexical borrowing; the Garínagu would have inserted French
words here and there within their everyday speech, but soon the Garínagu would become
bilingual in French.
In conclusion, the stage of Early Garífuna is the period that sees the birth of the
Garífuna language. Garífuna language is not Garífuna language until it is spoken
by the Africans, lending their unique phonological and prosodic elements to the Kalípona
language. Through an intimate contact with the French colonists, Garífuna language
became inundated with French words but with an African (Garífuna) pronunciation.
By the time the Garínagu landed in Central America in 1797, they had French names,
given to them by their French and Garífuna bilingual mothers. The inclusion of
French in Garífuna language does not make it a mixed language, it is still a wholly
Arawak language with a large (but dwindling) corpus of Carib lexical and affixial
items, but now with the infusion of French lexical items as well. It is important
to note that there are no known French affixes (prefixes, suffixes) in Garífuna.
Introduction to Garífuna language
Modern Vernacular Garífuna
African entry into an indigenous culture
Since the Garínagu and Kalínago were a pre-literate society and did not use writing
sources (quipus, hieroglyphics, rock carvings, etc.), we must depend on oral tradition
and European documents to reconstruct a Garífuna history. Unfortunately, the earliest
writers of Garífuna history had one goal in mind, which as to control the Caribbean
islands to plant crops and make their fortunes. British men who lived on the island
of St. Vincent had to make their countrymen back home believe that the Africans on
the island – although they may speak the Indian language and live the Indian culture
– were not indigenous at all. With the support of their countrymen, these British
men would earn the right to kick the Africans off the island.
No matter which version is the truth, whether Africans ended up on St. Vincent because
of a shipwreck, because they were stolen by native Kalípona Indians, because they
escaped from other islands or even if Africans were living in the Caribbean before
the arrival of the Europeans, one fact is undeniably sure – Africans lived on St.
Vincent among the native Kalínago.
The first eye-witness accounts of life on St. Vincent Island report that the Kalínago
lived on the western side of the island. This would have been the more hospitable
side; the mountains in the center of St. Vincent would have dampened the blow of
the fierce Caribbean trade winds, responsible for hurricanes that originated in that
general area. The islands in the Greater Antilles were busy with a flurry of settlers
and planters taking over and colonizing, but the Indigenous of the Lesser Antilles
resisted and fought for the right to live peaceably on their own soil. Although
these Kalínago did not allow large-scale colonization, they did not mind sharing
their lands with the French, who befriended the Kalínago and dazzled them with French
goods. So what can be said about the linguistic make-up of St. Vincent in light
of no existing transcripts or description of the language?
On the other Caribbean islands, pidgin and creole languages were forming. Pidgin
languages are formed when individuals are learning a second language, but with restricted
input. For example, Blacks who came directly from Africa were learning either Spanish,
English or French as a second language, but instead of learning in a classroom where
their grammar would have been corrected or instead of learning in an immersion environment
where they would have the opportunity for lots of practice, they often heard the
input language from one single person – the slave master – who often was a higher-ranking
Black (or mixed Black and European) who did not speak the language well himself.
Creole languages are formed when individuals are learning a first language, but
with restricted input. For example, the children of these Blacks born on the islands
would hear the language as spoken by their parents; they would have been hearing
a sort of fragmented language that had elements of both the European language and
an African language. However, as children acquire a first language, the theory of
Universal Grammar posits that children automatically fill in the blanks, making sense
of a language for them to communicate. However, this was not the case on St. Vincent.
In an environment of unlimited access to the Kalípona language and as the Kalínago
were in a position of power, there wasn’t time for a pidgin to form, much less a
creole. What happened with the Africans in the Kalípona society is not unlike a
student learning a second language. There is a period of interlanguage, a linguistic
term used to describe the stilted language of someone trying to acquire a second
language. Living among thousands of indigenes, the Africans quickly and fluently
learned Kalípona language. With each new generation, the African element diminished,
leaving behind only the African pronunciation. William Young, the very same who published
an account of the shipwreck, mentioned that the “ignorant and savage Africans” spoke
a language that was all their own. We know that it is the Kalípona language with
African pronunciation, as opposed to a separate African language through theories
When there is limited access to the dominant language, a third language arises that
is fully productive, complex and complete. However, the Africans had unlimited access
to the Kalípona language and thus, acquired it as their own. In the face of severe
trauma, such as that as capture and slavery, one does everything to hold on to shreds
of their culture, religion or language as a means of mental survival and maintaining
one’s sanity. The fact that there is very little African lexical influence demonstrates
that the Kalínago were in a position of dominance that quelled the use of any African
With a full group of Blacks speaking the Kalípona language in their African pronunciation,
we have the birth of the GARÍFUNA LANGUAGE.
It is this particular pronunciation that gives rise to the word Garífuna, which is
the African pronunciation of Kalípona.
Photos on this page courtesy of Román Ávila Zuñiga