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Do You Speak Taino? 7 Indigenous Taino Words You Probably Already Know
The Taino people were a peaceful people with a complex society that lived in the Greater Antilles islands of Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Taino language is a soft language that is not heavy. It flows very quickly and has many sounds. The Taino language is part of the Arawakan language family that is widespread throughout South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Florida.
Other Arawakan languages are still spoken today, but most scholars agree that no one alive today knows the Taino language. Therefore, it is considered a lost language. However, there are people who are trying to rise again. At least one teacher taught the words “Taino is gone” to his students! More power to him!
The Taino people, including their language and culture, were the first Spanish settlers to arrive in the New World beginning in 1492. Their conquests were often brutal. Therefore, they will not let the Taino speak their language.
Well, you know how they say “good things never die!” This is certainly true of the Taino language. Many Taino languages were adopted by the Spanish and other Europeans. These acquired words are called “loan words” colloquially and are widely used in English, Spanish, and French. There are many English languages, especially American English, which are Spanish or French versions of Taino languages, they include words in their language as Taino has no written language.
Here are 7 indigenous Taino words that are so common in English now that I bet you use them all the time:
Meat and potatoes is home cookin’ American dinner faire, right? No! The word “potato” comes from the Taino language. When the Mexicans arrived in the New World they had never seen or eaten potatoes. The Taino were successful farmers and they shared their sweet potatoes, which they called “batata,” with the Mexicans. Columbus himself presented the “batata” to Queen Isabella after his first voyage. In the next voyage, Columbus and his men found white potatoes in Peru called “papa” by the indigenous people. Just as the “p” from “papa” was added to “batata” and the Spanish word for potato became “patata” with the anglicized version being “potato.” Well, the rest is history as they say because we all know how much potatoes are available today.
For a long time, the white potato brought back the sweet potato in Europe. In fact, white potatoes have been called “bastard potatoes” for a long time. However, the next time you order mashed potatoes or pop a large potato into the microwave for a quick meal, remember Taino. Instead of calling your fries “freedom fries” maybe you can call them “Taino fries” out of respect for those who lost their freedom.
Okay, let’s stick with food for a minute. The origin of the word “barbeque,” which is often written in many ways in American English, is controversial with passionate opposing views. However, most linguists seem to agree that the word, or something similar to it, comes from the Taino language.
According to Peter Guanikeyu Torres, President and Council of the Taino Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean and Florida, the Taino word “barabicu” means “sacred fire.” This may be where the American English word “barbeque” is derived from. He describes the method for cooking meat very slowly, which is always on a wooden platform resting on green pimento tree branches and leaves.
When Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, the Taino were being attacked by another Arawakan people, now known as the Carib. The Taino told Columbus and other Spaniards about another group of people who lived mostly in the Lesser Antilles who were very aggressive and captured and ate them. They refer to these people as caribal which loosely means fierce and brave. The Spanish corrupted this into “Canibales” which was later anglicized to “cannibals.” The Taino may have pronounced “caribal” like “cannibal” too because in the Arawakan language the words l, n, and r are sometimes interchangeable. It should be noted that the Carib people called themselves something close to “Kalinago.”
Many historians have found that Columbus had little or no evidence that the Caribs were actually cannibals – in fact nowhere near what he described them to be. The Caribs were fierce warriors who made more resistance to the European conquerors. It has been thought by some scholars that Columbus used the word “cannibals” as a negative word to paint them as monsters and to make them suspicious, thus making it easier for his men to overcome them. Unlike the Taino, there are a few of Carib blood still alive today – but very few.
When seeing how the Taino lived on his first trip to the New World, Columbus wrote in his journal, “..for beds, they have nets of cotton, continuous between two positions.” Later in his journal he wrote, “…a large number of Indians in canoes came to the ship today for the purpose of exchanging their cotton and hamacas or nets which they sleep.” There is little dispute that the English word “banana” is a variation of the Taino word, “hamacas,” as the Spaniards wrote it in Spanish.
Before Columbus arrived in the New World, cotton was little known. It was thought that seeing how strong and stable the hammocks were made of cotton twine made them like cotton for clothes and other things that were not long after.
Columbus had never seen a manatee before when he arrived in the New World so he didn’t have a name for it. This is why the Mexicans almost immediately adopted the Taino word for manatee, “manati.” This often happens when a person from another culture experiences something new for the first time. “Manatee” is the anglicized version of “manati.”
The manatee must have looked like a real stranger. At first, in fact, Columbus mistook the manatee for a mermaid, half woman and half fish. In fact, in his journal after seeing the manatees he wrote that mermaids are not as beautiful as they are made out to be! Manati means “breast” in the Taino language because the males have mammary glands that look like human females. The idea that the word manati is a corruption of the Spanish word for hand, “mano,” because the manatee’s front flippers look like hands has been shown to be fake and the resemblance is a what a mere coincidence.
Like the manatee, Columbus and the other Spaniards had never seen anything like a hurricane. In fact, they never saw a storm 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, a strong storm hit. In fact, the new order, Isabella, which Columbus had recently created was completely abolished. Needless to say, this Caribbean hurricane is heartbreaking.
Because they had never seen hurricane-like weather before, they adopted the Taino word for it and spelled it phonetically, “hurakan.” Of course the anglicized version of this is “hurricane.” The Taino word hurakan is used not only to describe the actual weather conditions but also the path of destruction that it leaves in its path like falling trees and other destroyed. I like this idea and like to think of hurricanes like this too. In the Arawakan tradition, the Taino call their storm god hurakan and both fear and respect him.
The word “canoe” is an anglicized version of the Taino word phonetically spelled in Spanish as canoa. The early English spellings of this word are very different: cano, canow, canoa. However, around 1600, the canoe became the most accepted.
The word canoe is a good example of a “myth,” which is a word whose meaning or origin is not documented in the proven usage. It is thus widely accepted and it is difficult to correct this misconception when it is widespread in society. For a long time, most people thought that the word “canoe” came from a word used by a native of what is now the United States. However, this turned out to be false and was caused by a typographical error of the scribe in the 15th century.
So there you have it, 7 English words that you have used most of your life: potato, barbeque, cannibal, hammock, manatee, hurricane, and canoe. It is heartwarming to think that the words of a language that has been declared extinct live on as everyday words spoken by many. Every time you say these 7 Taino words, you respect the Taino people who are forbidden to speak their language as a tool to defeat them.
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