The Garifuna language is spoken primarily in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala. A large population of speakers is also found in New York City, as well as Los Angeles and New Orleans. The most reliable estimate for the number of speakers may be that of Grinevald (2007: 69, 71), who cites 22,000 for Honduras and 12,000 for Belize, although the Ethnologue reports higher numbers and there are several hundred thousand ethnic Garifuna. The most widely accepted account of the origins of the Garifuna people is that they are largely descended from West Africans who were transported to South America but escaped due to a fortuitous shipwreck off the island of Yurumein, now known as St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles. On Yurumein, the newly arrived population intermarried with an Indigenous Arawak tribe, adopting many elements from their culture such as the cultivation of cassava and its related technology, as well as their language. Contact with Carib tribes also led to the presence of a large number of Carib loanwords in the language, even in the basic vocabulary.
Garifuna is classified as belonging to the Ta-Maipurean (or Caribbean) branch of the Arawakan (or Maipurean) language family, the largest indigenous language family in South America in terms of number of languages (59 according to the Ethnologue). While the language can clearly be classified as Arawakan, it has borrowed many words from a Carib language of St. Vincent, as well as French. English and Spanish words have also made their way into the language in more recent times.
Regarding the Arawak family as a whole, Aikhenvald (1999:72) states:
“The overwhelming majority of Arawak languages are now endangered. Even in the few communities with over 1,000 speakers, a national language (Portuguese or Spanish) or a local lingua franca (Língua Geral Amazônica, Quechua or Tucano) is gradually gaining ground among younger people. A massive switch to Lingua Geral Amazônica took place around 1900 in the region of the Rio Negro, and resulted in the rapid loss of a number of languages.”
There is wide agreement that a large number of ethnic Garifuna have little command of the language and that the transmission of Garifuna to the younger generation in many areas has undergone rapid decline.
The unfortunate trend of the last several decades is clear; while Garifuna was spoken in the coastal areas from as far as Nicaragua to Belize, it has now been almost completely replaced by Spanish and English in all of Nicaragua (Davidson 1980) and many areas in Belize (Bonner 2001). There remain several strongholds in Honduras, where the Garifuna population is most dense, but even here, a shift towards Spanish is observed among the younger generations in the larger towns.
The basic vocabulary and pronominal morphology of Garifuna clearly shows its connection with the Arawakan language family:
Similarities in basic vocabulary and function words can be seen in the comparison below, where both words are clearly cognate. Interestingly, the order of determiner (“the”) and noun (“woman”) are opposite in Lokono.
The basic word order of a Garifuna transitive clause is Verb-Subject-Object. If one of the arguments of a verbal clause is a personal pronoun, as in the second example below, it shows up as agreement on the verb or auxiliary rather than in the position of regular noun phrase arguments.
‘Maria ate the cassava bread.’
‘I saw an armadillo.’
Another interesting feature of Garifuna are its prepositions which agree with their complements. In the first example below, the preposition -un ‘to’ takes the third person singular masculine prefix l- agreeing with the features of “Juan”. In the second example, the same preposition agrees with the first person singular. Just as with verbal predicates, agreement on prepositions does not co-occur with pronouns. Including the pronoun after the preposition in this example (i.e. *n-un nuguya 1SG-to 1SG) would thus be ungrammatical.
‘Maria gave money to Juan.’
‘Maria gave me money.’
Garifuna has a very complex system of auxiliaries, each one governing its own agreement pattern. Their use is determined by the aspect, tense, mood and transitivity of a clause. Some of these auxiliaries have cognates in related languages, such as Lokono, but few other Arawak languages seem to reflect a similar level of complexity in this area.
‘He will kill a jaguar.’ (Pet 2011:25)
‘He will kill a jaguar.’
Notice in the following examples the relation between Garifuna tuma and Lokono oma. Unlike the Lokono, the Garifuna word that expresses “with” takes an agreement prefix that reflects the feminine singular features of the jaguar. Also note that Lokono “with” follows its complement (jaguar) while Garifuna “with” precedes it.
‘He will kill fight with the jaguar.’ (Pet 2011:27)
‘He will fight with the jaguar.’
Aikhenvald (1999) notes that several decades later, the pioneering work of Taylor on the phylogenetic relation between Garifuna, Lokono, Guajiro (Wayuu) has not been surpassed.
Garifuna represents a rare example of a language which shows no signs of creolization and or substrate effects (from African languages) despite having been acquired, at least in part, via peer-to-peer learning.
Also within the domain of contact phenomena, Garifuna is unique in having developed male and female registers based on two different languages, from the Carib and Arawak families, respectively. Several hypothesis have been forwarded to account for this but the full range of alternations marked as men’s and women’s speech has not yet been documented. With a better understanding of comparative Carib and Arawakan morphology in recent years (see Gildea 1998, Aikhenvald 1999, Romero- Figeroa 2000, Courtz 2008), we are now in a better position to evaluate the Garifuna facts regarding the male and female registers, described by Taylor & Hoff (1980).
The Garifuna are a maritime people–through their work on ships, they have been able to migrate to the United States in large numbers. Remarkably, it is thought that over a third of all Garifuna people now currently reside in New York.
ELA is currently undertaking work with the local Garifuna community to document forms of natural speech, as well as the more archaic language of traditional songs. In addition to compiling a substantial lexicon of the language and analyzing its highly complex morphosyntax, ELA is supporting efforts of Garifuna communities to revitalize the language in New York and St. Vincent, and community members and organizations have been featured at a number of ELA’s public events.
During ELA’s Mother Tongues exhibit at City Lore Gallery, Libaña Maraza performed several arumahani songs, one of the traditional a cappella genres of Garifuna music. This was part of a larger project led by Daniel Kaufman and James Lovell and sponsored by a grant from ELDP to document the arumahani and its transmission.
The following is a sample “mini-vocabulary” of Garifuna lexical items made by Daniel Kaufman in collaboration with Alex Kwabena Colón.
New York’s Garifuna community began taking root in the 1960s, with nearly every Garifuna village was represented by at least one hometown association. Initially many from Spanish-speaking countries (especially Honduras and Guatemala) settled among other Spanish speakers in East Harlem, later moving in large numbers to the Bronx. The Happy Land fire on 1990, which killed 87 people, had a deep impact on the community. Multiple churches serve the community, and Ferry Point Park and Rainey (Waporu) Park are important gathering places, and the language is used and taught at Casa Yurumein. Many Garifuna coming today are fleeing an epidemic of violence and dispossesion in Honduras.
Eastern Brooklyn, including a swath of neighborhoods centered on Brownsville, is a major center for Belizean Garifuna, who largely settled among other English speakers from the Caribbean. Linden Park in Brooklyn is a major gathering point, and some have moved into Queens, including Far Rockaway. Settlement Day, celebrated at Our Lady of Mercy Church on Mother Gaston Boulevard, is an annual commemoration of the exile from St. Vincent.
The Garifuna Nursery Rhymes Project, produced by ELA and launched by Garifuna artist James Lovell (originally of Dangriga, Belize, now living in New York), is a new way of teaching song and language to children across the Garifuna diaspora.
Below are 12 nursery rhymes sung by James, with the lyrics highlighted, karaoke-style, to make learning easy. For each song, there are three versions: on the left is the Full Version, and on the right is the Instrumental Version, where it’s up to you to sing along!
Aba Biama (I Love You)
Anansi (The Itsy-Bitsy Spider)
Baa Baa Mudun (Baa Baa Black Sheep)
Barugumuña San Youn (Frère Jacques)
Bigi-bigi (Twinkle, Twinkle)
Galügütu (Mary Had a Little Lamb)
Hesientibu Nun (I Love You)
Heun (Row, Row, Row Your Boat)
Itara liyan (The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round)
Neibuga luma nuguchi (Three Blind Mice)
Yurumein Garifuna Cultural Retrieval (Yugacure), spearheaded by artist/activist James Lovell and native Vincentian author Trish St. Hill, seeks to bring the Garifuna language and culture back to its ancestral homeland on the island of St. Vincent (Yurumein) in the Caribbean. The Garifuna are of African, Arawak and Carib ancestry and are the only population of the Caribbean islands to have maintained their indigenous (Arawak) language until the present day in the face of colonialism and genocide. The language was effectively silenced on St. Vincent when the Garifuna were exiled en masse by the British in 1797. The remaining Garifuna were threatened with violence if they spoke their language, but they continued speaking it miraculously for over 215 years in exile, on the coastal area of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
ELA has provided support and hosted fundraising events for Yugacure and other Garifuna revitalization efforts.
In recognition of this, UNESCO proclaimed Garifuna language, music and dance as a Masterpiece of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Unfortunately, traditional Garifuna culture remains under attack from all sides as an increasing number of children are only being exposed to the official national languages and cultures of their country through television, radio and the school system. Through Yugacure we are working not only to stem the tide of attrition in Central America but to repatriate these cultural masterpieces to their place of origin.
This program has been a resounding success over the last two summers but has been funded largely out of pocket with very little outside support. Last summer, James Lovell and Trish St. Hill toiled tirelessly to make it happen. It is our utmost hope that supporters will chip in to help bring this program back to the children of St. Vincent as this program provides the only direct authentic link to their indigenous history and ancestry.
Yugacure is unique in using music, dance and performance as a vehicle to teach the language. As a direct result of its effectiveness, Garifuna is again being spoken by young people on Yurumein, where it has been dormant for over two hundred years.
ELA’s collaboration with James Lovell has been featured prominently in the media over the last several years. Please check out the following: