The Taino people were a peaceful people with a complex society who lived on the Greater Antilles Islands of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Taino language was a soft sweet melodious language lacking harsh gutturals. It flowed rapidly and contained many vowel sounds. The Taino language is part of the Arawakan language family that was very 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 is fluent in the Taino language. Therefore, it is considered an extinct language. However, there are those who are trying to resurrect it. At least one professor is teaching the “extinct” Taino language to his students! More power to him!
The Taino people, including their language and culture, were the first to be decimated by the Spaniards who arrived in the New World beginning in 1492. Their methods of conquest were often cruel. As such, they would not allow the Taino to speak their native language.
Well, you know how they say “a good thing never really dies!” This is certainly true of the Taino language. Many Taino words were adopted by the Spaniards and other Europeans. These adopted words are called “loan words” in linguistic circles and many are in very common usage in English, Spanish, and French. There are many English words, especially American English, that are anglicized versions of the Spanish or French versions of Taino words they incorporated phonetically into their own language as the Taino had no written language.
Here are 7 indigenous Taino words that are so common in the English language now I bet you use them all the time:
Meat and potatoes is home cookin’ American dinner faire, right? Wrong! The word “potato” comes directly from the Taino language. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World they had never seen or eaten a potato. The Taino were accomplished farmers and they shared their sweet potato, which they called “batata,” with the Spaniards. Columbus himself presented the “batata” to Queen Isabella after his first voyage. In subsequent voyages, Columbus and his men discovered the white potato in Peru called “papa” by the indigenous people. Somehow the “p” from “papa” got added to the “batata” and the Spanish word for potato became “patata” with the anglicized version becoming “potato.” Well, the rest is history as they say because we all know how prevalent the potato is today.
For a long time, the white potato took a back seat to the sweet potato in Europe. In fact, the white potato was called the “bastard potato” for a long time. Anyway, the next time you order mashed potatoes or pop a big potato into the microwave for a quick meal, remember the Taino. Instead of calling your fries “freedom fries” maybe you can instead 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 term “barbeque,” which is often spelled in various ways in American English, is controversial with passionate opposing viewpoints. However, the majority of linguistic scholars seem to agree that the term, or one very similar to it, originated from the Taino language.
According to Peter Guanikeyu Torres, President and Council Chief of the Taino Indigenous Nation of the Caribbean and Florida, the Taino word “barabicu” meant “the sacred fire pit.” This is likely where the American English word “barbeque” is derived from. It describes a structure for cooking animal flesh very slowly, which traditionally consisted of 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 referred to as the Carib. The Taino told Columbus and the other Spaniards about another group of people who mostly lived on the Lesser Antilles who were fierce and had captured and eaten them. They referred to these people as caribal which loosely meant fierce and brave. The Spanish corrupted this into “Canibales” which was later anglicized into “cannibals.” The Taino may have pronounced “caribal” more like “cannibal” too because in Arawakan languages the consonants of l, n, and r are sometimes interchangeable. It should be noted that the Carib people called themselves something closer to “Kalinago.”
Many historians have discovered that Columbus had little to no evidence that the Carib were actually cannibals – most assuredly not anywhere near to the extend he depicted them to be. The Caribs were fierce warriors who put up far more resistance to European conquerors. It is thought by some scholars that Columbus used the word “cannibals” as a pejorative term to paint them as monsters and to discredit them thus making it easier for his men to conquer them. Unlike the Taino, there are a few full-blooded Carib still alive today – but very few.
Upon seeing how the Taino lived on his first voyage to the New World, Columbus wrote in his journal, “..for beds, they had nets of cotton, extended between two posts.” Later in his journal he wrote, “…a great many Indians in canoes came to the ship today for the purpose of bartering their cotton and hamacas or nets in which they sleep.” There is little dispute that the English word “hammock” is an anglicized version of the Taino word, “hamacas,” as the Spaniards phonetically spelled it in Spanish.
Before Columbus’ arrival in the New World, cotton was little known. It is thought that seeing how strong and durable the hammocks were that woven out of cotton twine sparked their interest in cotton for clothing and other goods 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 Spaniards almost immediately adopted the Taino word for manatee, “manati.” This often happens when someone from a different culture encounters something new for the first time. “Manatee” is the anglicized version of “manati.”
The manatee must have looked like a strange creature indeed. 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 mermaids weren’t as beautiful as they had been made out to be! Manati means “breast” in the Taino language because manatees have mammary glands that resemble those on female humans. 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 false and the similarity is a mere coincidence.
Like the manatee, Columbus and the other Spaniards had never seen anything like a hurricane. In fact, they missed seeing a hurricane on their first voyage to the New World where they enjoyed near perfect weather. However, on their second and third voyages to the New World, strong hurricanes hit. In fact, the new settlement, Isabella, that Columbus had recently established was completely wiped out. Needless to say, these Caribbean hurricanes made a lasting impression.
Because they had never seen any weather pattern like a hurricane before, they adopted the Taino word for it and spelled it phonetically as, “hurakan.” Of course the anglicized version of this is “hurricane.” The Taino word hurakan was used not only to describe the actual weather event but also the path of destruction it left in its wake like downed trees and other devastated landscape. I like this concept and tend to think of hurricanes this way too. In the Arawakan tradition, the Taino called their storm God hurakan and both feared and revered him.
The word “canoe” is the anglicized version of the Taino word phonetically spelled in Spanish as canoa. Early English spellings of this word varied considerably: cano, canow, canoa. However, by around 1600, canoe had come to be the most accepted spelling.
The word canoe is a good example of a “ghost word,” which is a word whose meaning or origin is inaccurately recorded in an authoritative reference. It thus becomes widely accepted and it is difficult to correct the false perception once it has pervaded a society. For a long time, most people thought 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 transcription error of a scribe in the late 15th century.
So there you have it, 7 common words in English that you have probably been using most of your life: potato, barbeque, cannibal, hammock, manatee, hurricane, and canoe. It is heart-warming 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 Taino words, you honor the Taino people who were forbidden to speak their own language as a tool to conquer them.