Origins of the word “taíno”
Written by Jorge Estevez
Rene Pérez de Liciaga—Lead Researcher
Keisha Josephs, Ph.D.—Linguistic Consultant
This paper is intended to shed light on the origins of the words “taíno” and “nitaíno,” which have
been used, respectively, to represent the most dominant Indigenous group of the Caribbean region during
the contact period (beginning in 1492) and a supposed ruling class in the Taíno hierarchy. The target
audience of this paper is laymen interested in the subject. That said, we believe that scholars may also
benefit as we raise key questions and observations about Caribbean and Circum-Caribbean languages
based on our research and interviews with Native Arawakan speakers.
Christopher Columbus’s travel logs offer us a miniscule glimpse of the very complex Caribbean
world in which the Taíno people lived in 1492. Although biased and not very accurate, his logs are the
earliest records of Indigenous Caribbean peoples and their cultures that we have, including what he noted
about the Indigenous languages. Columbus was diligent in his descriptions of the things he saw, peoples
he met, foods to which he was introduced, and words that he heard; however, his logs are inundated with
mistakes, mostly based on cultural biases. For example, the Admiral wrote that the island of Cuba was a
continent. On another occasion, he misunderstood and believed that the Cibao Valley was an island.
Europeans, for the most part, were unable to truly communicate with the natives, using mostly
sign language and guesswork. This is particularly true during the initial voyages, which invariably set the
stage for colonization. In some cases, Spaniards, not possessing names for things they encountered that
were new to them, invented names based on things back in Europe that seemed similar.
Columbus believed he had landed on islands off the coast of India. As early as October 17, 1492,
he began calling the Natives “Indios,” from which the name “Indian” derives. Subsequently all the Native
Peoples of the Western Hemisphere came to be called Indians. In the Caribbean in particular, people are
still referred to as Indio or Indio-colored. Caribbean Indians came to be known as the Taíno. This name
has been steeped in controversy since its exact origins are unknown. Some claim that the name was
coined by the Spaniards from a Taínan word they overheard, “nitaíno,” which they interpreted as meaning
“noblemen.” Others believe that this name was first coined in the 1830s by C.S. Rafinuesque-Schmaltz, a
self-educated Frenchman who wrote extensively on zoology and Meso-American languages. Still others
maintain that “Taíno” is indeed the tribal name of the most dominant Indigenous group of the Caribbean.
That is a claim, however, that is difficult to back up, since the people we call Taíno today were not one
ethnic group, but rather composites of many different Indigenous, Arawakan-speaking peoples who had
blended their cultural traits, values and beliefs, and their genes together in the region for more than 6,000
Our aim is to explore some of these theories and offer our own interpretation of the words “taíno”
and “nitaíno.” In addition, we hope to demonstrate that the modern name Taíno and its historical
variants, “nitayno” or “tayno,” were the words the Indigenous peoples of the region used to identify
themselves Caribbean-wide and are, indeed, applicable. Most importantly, we believe that the words did
not refer to a noble class.
Our Classic Taíno ancestors did not have a written language, thus when studying the lexicon,
morphology, and pronunciation of their languages, we can only rely on the various Spanish and other
European spellings and interpretations or study their language comparatively using related Indigenous
languages. Chroniclers, originating in various parts of Spain or Europe, undoubtedly spelled the
Indigenous words that they heard phonetically via the vocal prisms and tones to which they were
accustomed. Thus the same Indigenous word sounded different to a German speaker than it did to a
French or Spanish speaker. Subsequently, the various European chroniclers also spelled the Indigenous
The Arawak Language
Family: Macro, Arawakan, Maipuran
Divisions: Northern and Southern Ta-Arawakan
Walker & Ribeiro,
using Bayesian computational phylogenetics (a method of tracing evolutionary
history), classify the Arawakan languages as follows:
Arawakan is the most widely spread super-language family group in South America. The
language is distributed from Central America down through South America and throughout the Caribbean
islands. The language is absent only in Chile, Uruguay, and Ecuador. Arawakan is even more extensive
due to its strong linguistic connections to the Maipuran languages, which were found to be closely related
to Arawak in 1783 by the Italian priest Filippo Gilii.
The Arawakan language spoken in the Circum-Caribbean regions are: Classic Taíno, Kalínago
(formerly known as Island Carib), Garífuna, Lokono, and Wayuu. The latter four are strikingly similar, so
it can be easily deduced that they are closely related. For example, the word for “grandfather” in all five
Arawakan languages are remarkably similar:
From Wikipedia, 2011
Taíno—Problems with the name
The word “taíno” and its changing use across the past five centuries pose some very interesting
problems and challenges. For example, the historic interpretation of the name was that “taíno” means
“good people” or “noble people.” In fact, Spaniards associated the name “taíno” with “Good Indians” v.
the “Bad Caribs.” It must also be noted that the term was first coined by archaeologists, most of whom
today feel that the peoples of the Caribbean were too diverse to be called by a single collective name. As
diverse as Indigenous cultures were across the Caribbean, however, there were also striking similarities:
biological, cultural, linguistic, and religious similarities. All the Indigenous Caribbean people spoke a
native Arawakan language except for the Ciguayo, Ciboney, and Guanahatabey of the Northeastern
Dominican Republic and Cuba, respectively.
The morphology of the name is said to be: tai = good, and no = people; therefore, the meaning is
the good people or the noble people. This rather romantic interpretation of the name, however, is highly
suspect. The prefix “tai-“ is not found in any of the closely related Arawakan languages of the Circum-
The words for “good” in the various Arawakan languages are as follows:
Language found in Guyana,
Surinam, and Venezuela
Language found in Honduras,
Belize, Nicaragua, and
WAYUU or Goajiro
Language found in the
Goajiro Peninsula of
Colombia and in Venezuela
lao or tao
Language from the island of
Native language of the
Greater Antilles but also used
throughout the Caribbean as a
lingua franca (trade
The Lord´s Prayer
In Prehistoria de Puerto Rico, written in 1898 by Cayetano Coll y Toste, one of the first works ever
produced about the Taíno language, the author included an imagined “ Lord´s Prayer,” in what the author
believed the Taino language structure would be.:. Here it is, below:
Taíno/English: Guakia Baba (Our father), turey toca (in the heavens), Guami-ke-ni (Lord [of] Land
[and] Water), Guami-caraya-guey (Lord [of] Moon [and] Sun), guarico (come [to]), guakíá (us), tayno-ti
(good/high), bo-matún; (big/generous), busicá (give [to]), guakiá (us), para yucubia (rain/plant), aje-
casabi; (tubers/bread), juracán-uá (evil spirits no, no), maboya-uá (phantoms NO), jukiyú-jan; (good
spirit, yes), Diosá (God´s),nabori daca (servant, I am), jan-jan catú (as it shall be).
Taíno/Spanish: Guakia Baba (Nuestro padre), turey toca (cielo estar), Guami-ke-ni (Señor [de] tierra [y]
agua), guami-caraya-guey (Señor [de] luna [y] sol), guarico (ven [a]), guakíá (nosotros), tayno-ti
(bueno/alto), bo-matún; (grande/generoso), busicá (da [a]), guakiá (nosotros), para yucubia
(lluvia/planta), aje-casabi; (boniato/pan), juracán-uá (espíritu malo NO), maboya-uá (fantasma no),
jukiyú-jan; (espíritu bueno sí), Diosá (de Dios), nabori daca (siervo yo), jan-jan catú (así sea).
In this example, the word “jan” (or “han”) is used to denote either “yes” or “good.” “Jan”
appears to be similar to the Lokono word “san,” which means “good.” Therefore the prefix “tai-“ does not
Constantine Samuel Rafinuesque-Schmaltz and the word “Taíno” that will not go away
Constantine Samuel Rafinuesque-Schmaltz (1783-1840) from Galata, a suburb of Constantinople,
was a self-educated scholar. He was one of the first to suggest that Native Americans had originated in
Asia and crossed the Bering Straits to North America. In 1836, four years before his death, he wrote
several chapters in The American Nations, where he states as a fact that: “Their collective proper name is
Taíno.” He further states that the word “taíno” referred to other related peoples collectively known as
To date, this is the first known modern usage of the term “taíno” to denote the native
peoples of the region. Later adopted by scholars of different philosophies, in particular archaeology, the
name stuck and has been used by many scholars ever since.
The question arises, where did Rafinuesque-Schmaltz get the idea that Taíno was the name of the
Native people? What were his sources? And why did the name stick so readily?
C.S. Rafinuesque-Schmaltz did not invent the name Taíno, his sources were mainly the following:
a) Christopher Columbus´s Logs
b) Pedro de Anglería
c) Dr. Chanca—The Chanca Letters
d) Raymond Breton—1647 Relations de l’Ile de la Guadeloupe; 1665 Dictionnaire Caraïbe-
François; 1666 Dictionnaire François-Caraïbe; 1667 Grammaire Caraïbe.
Samuel Constantine Rufinesque, The American Nations: Outlines of their general histories, ancient and modern,
“Haytian Anals,” page 163.
Let´s briefly examine Rafinuesque-Schmaltz ´s main sources for the answer to our question:
a) Christopher Columbus and the Nitaíno
Columbus wrote: “Since the canoes go rapidly with oars, they went on ahead to inform the
Cacique that we were coming. I have not been sure up to now whether the word ´Cacique´ meant King or
Governor. They also have another word for noblemen, Nitayno. I do not know if this means Hidalgo,
governor, or judge.”
The Europeans were clearly not sure what the term meant—and understandably so.
The assumption that it meant a royal class of people, since the individuals in question were dressed rather
elaborately, as was their host, “King” Guacanagarí, was a natural mistake, a mistake that has caused much
controversy over the centuries. This was, in fact, Columbus´s first voyage to the Caribbean, and both the
Europeans and Indigenous peoples had little in common. Indeed, Arawakan languages and Spanish are
from completely different language families, and Columbus was interested mainly in two things: routes
that would lead him to the West Indies and obtaining lots of gold. In the account quoted above, he clearly
associated the word “nitaíno” with “hidalgo” (“nobleman”) for no other reason than that it evoked in his
mind a similarity to differences in dress between commoners and noblemen in Europe. Perhaps he was
consciously looking for royalty in order to establish trade relations.
In any event, because of Columbus´s error, to this very day, most people believe that “nitayno”
means noblemen. As stated earlier, Columbus made many such errors and misinterpretations.
b) Dr. Diego Chanca and the people on the beach at Guadalupe:
Dr. Chanca was a physician appointed by the Spanish Crown to accompany Christopher
Columbus on his second trip to the Americas in 1493. It was Dr. Chanca who heard the word “Tayno”
for the second time in the Americas: “On this first day of our landing, several men and women came to
the beach up to the water’s edge and gazed at the ship in astonishment at so novel a sight; and when a
boat pushed on shore in order to speak with them; they cried out, ´Tayno, Tayno!,´ which is as much as to
say, ´Good, good!,´ and waited for the landing of the sailors…”
For more than 500 years most people have accepted the fact that “Taíno” means “good/noble
people.” If so, why would the natives have shouted out, “Good people, good people!” upon the approach
of the Spanish ships?
Speculations: On Columbus’s first trip, he returned to Spain with Native Taíno people. Did he
return in 1493 with some of those Natives on board? They would have learned some Spanish in the year
they were in Spain, making them excellent translators, or at least better than the European translators
whom Columbus had with him on his first voyage.
On his second voyage, the one where Dr. Chanca recorded hearing Natives yelling out, “Tayno,
tayno!” it is entirely plausible that the people on the shores of Guadalupe, upon seeing recognizable
Native people on the deck of the ship, may have shouted, “Relatives, relatives!” Of course, the people of
Guadalupe were the so-called “Caribs,” considered by the Spaniards to be cannibals and enemies of the
peoples of the Greater Antilles. (Today we know that the “Caribs,” who call themselves Kalínago, were,
in fact, Arawakan speakers.) As reported by Columbus and others who accompanied him, most Indians
Journals and other documents on the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus, page 133.
American Journeys Collection, “The Letter of Dr. Chanca on the Second Voyage of Columbus.”
fled at the sight of Spanish ships, but here, on the island that today is called Guadalupe, they approached
shouting a term that appears to mean “my relatives.”
c) Pedro Mártir de Anglería and the Spanish Sailors´ Accounts:
Pedro Mártir de Anglería (as his Italian name was written in Spanish) was an Italian historian
born in 1457 who was appointed under Ferdinand and Isabella as teacher to the noble children of the
Royal Court of Spain. Anglería never set foot in the New World and was not an eyewitness to the events
occurring in the “Indies”; however, he had access to the sailors returning to Spain from those
explorations. He interviewed and recorded statements fresh from the memories of returning sailors,
compared notes, and found commonalities within their stories, then he wrote about them in letters and
reports to his friends back in Rome. In 1520, he received the official post of Chronicler (cronista) in the
newly formed Council of the Indies, commissioned by Charles V. himself, the Holy Roman Emperor, to
continue describing the occurrences and discoveries in the Empire´s vast new territories. In 1530, just
after his death, his writings were gathered together in a series of ten informative chapters about the
explorations and discoveries during the decades from 1511 to 1530, which were published as books titled,
De Orbe Novo (On the New World).
Anglería reported the following event: “They [Spanish sailors] were met by a man with a wrinkled
forehead and frowning brows who was escorted by 100 warriors armed with bows and arrows, pointed
lances, and clubs. He advanced menacingly toward them. ´Taíno´ the natives cried, that is to say, good
men, not cannibals.”
This incident seems to imply that the word was an identifier, one that supposedly (according to the
Spaniards) differentiated this man and others like him from the Taínos´ natural enemies, the so-called
Caribs. This is the third time the name “Taíno” appears in the chronicles, this time in an identical manner
to the word heard by Dr. Chanca and used in much the same way. Therefore, it appears that when Taíno
met strangers, they would quickly and naturally identify themselves as “Taíno” to others. In the Chanca
example, the Indians apparently were either in distress or welcoming when shouting the name “Tayno.” In
Anglería´s account, the Indians were armed, thus needed reassurance from the Spaniards that they would
not be attacked. Since the word was heard on more than one island and in all accounts of first encounters,
we may conclude:
The name was used throughout the Caribbean, but we do not know its true or exact meaning.
The Indigenous people may have felt a need to make distinctions between themselves and
their supposed rivals, the Caribs.
The word “Tayno” is from the Taíno language. It was appropriated by scholars and, in time,
became synonymous with the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Region.
The Spaniards, French, English, and other Europeans heard the same Indigenous languages,
yet recorded them phonetically how the words sounded to them; therefore, there are different
spellings in the records. This is not uncommon.
d) Raymond Breton and the Kalínago/Carib Connection
The Kalínago people of the Lesser Antilles, specifically the island of Dominica, where there is the
only Indigenous Reservation in all the Caribbean, were at one time mistakenly called “Caribs.” An
Theory posited by Ace Goaconax Vazquez (of Higuayagua) during a Facebook discussion.
analysis of their language structure, however, places them in the Arawakan language group. It must be
noted that the so-called Island Carib, themselves, were descendants of Cariban speakers who migrated
from South America. Some say they migrated in pursuit of Arawakan enemies, or perhaps for the same
motivations that led Arawak-speakers to move northward and eastward up the chain of Caribbean islands.
(Most scholars suggest it was over-population pressures on the continent.)
Carib warriors were said to be warlike in contrast to the “peaceful” Taíno, often raiding Taíno
villages, mostly for female captives. It is easy to imagine that groups of Carib men would leave the South
American mainland without their families and capture women along their path. These women remained
on the islands the Caribs settled as they moved northwestward up the Antillean chain, while the men
raided Taíno- and other Carib-held islands. The women mostly continued to speak Arawakan-based
languages while the men spoke principally Cariban.
Raymond Breton (1609-1679), a French linguist and friar of the Dominican Order, lived among
the Kalínago (Caribs) for ten years. During this time, he recorded the Carib language in detail. The
linguist Douglas Taylor, however, later revised Breton´s work and concluded that the language Breton
had recorded was mostly Arawakan with only a sprinkling of Carib words. Thus Kalínago was
geographically closer and perhaps linguistically closer as well to Classic Taíno.
The Kalínago use two very important words that appear to verify our hypothesis. These words
are, “nitegnon” and “tegnon,” pronounced “ni-ta-igno” and “ta-igno,” both meaning “relative.” In Carib
proper, the word for relative is “ibaounale,” whereas Breton clearly recorded that the women of Dominica
used nitegnon and tegnon.
Another interesting word is “ouatiaon,” (pronounced wai-tea-aon) by our friend Reyes, which is
quite similar to classic Taíno “waitiao,” meaning “a name exchange that creates a ´family´ relationship
between two unrelated people.”
It is quite clear that “nitaíno” has its counterpart in Kalínago, and again, the only difference is the
Spanish interpretation of the word versus the Indian meaning.
Breton wrote that: “Some but not all nouns referring to animate beings take a pluralizing suffix,
which occurs in the same variants as does the personal suffix of third plural: for example Breton’s
cáintium ouacánium gaitiu uáganiu “our enemies are angry” (again “enemy”). So also iraáhoia
“children,” from ifraho “child”; hiariu “women,” from hiaru,“woman”; eieriu “men” from eiri ”man”;
niduheiu “my kinsmen,”, from niduhe “my kinsmen/kinswoman”; nitunu “my sisters,” from nitu “my
sisters”; nibirie, “my younger brothers,” from nibiri , etc….”
Unfortunately, today there are no fluent speakers of the Kalínago language, which had its origins
in Arawakan, Ta-Arawakan, Igneri, and Island Carib or the Cariban languages. There may be remnants of
it, however, in the Garífuna language.
The Garífuna language and those who speak it
The Garífuna people and their language originated in the 1600s from a mixture of Carib Indians
in the Lesser Antilles (who call themselves Kalínago) and escaped African slaves.
Legend has it that two British slaves ships ran aground in St. Lucia around 1635 (or between
1664 and 1670, depending upon which report one reads). The African slaves rebelled and were quickly
These words and pronunciations, as well other in this seccion, were provided during private email conversations
between Jorge Estevez and the Garífuna linguist and historian Dr. Ruben Reyes, a native Garífuna speaker.
joined by the Carib Natives, who were watching. The Caribs then adopted the African slaves. Not having
a common language, the Africans quickly learned the Carib language, adapted to their culture, and
married into the Native families in order to survive—they became known as the Black Caribs. (Other
Kalínago in the area, who did not mix with the Africans, were known as Yellow Caribs.) Unable to
subdue these mixed-blood people, the British began deporting all of the Black Caribs to Central America,
where more than 300,000 live today. They are the only Native peoples of the Caribbean who still speak an
Indigenous language; it is also spoken in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, and the island
of Dominica. It is said that up to 70% of the Garífuna language is Arawakan, 20% Carib, and 10%
other. Thus it is one of the closest languages to Classic Taíno still spoken today. There is no doubt,
however, that various African words, cadences, and other speech patterns have affected the language as it
is spoken today.
In June 2011, a conference was held for the Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project at the Smithsonian
National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. In attendance were various authorities on
Taíno culture and history. One speaker, Dr. Joseph Palacios, a fluent Garífuna (Arawakan language)
speaker from Honduras, noted that the term “nitaíno” seemed eerily similar to the Garífuna word
“nidihenu” or “nidianu,” whose translation means “relative.”
This intriguing bit of information led us to ask other Garífuna speakers their opinion on the word
“nitaíno” as we understand it and what it means in their own branch of the Arawakan language. One
Garífuna linguist who was instrumental in this investigation is Dr. Ruben Reyes from Honduras. Below
is an email correspondence from him:
Níbiri Jorge Estevez,
It is always a pleasure to hear from you with this very interesting topic about the name “Taíno.” I
have done very little research on the word itself. One of the sites I searched was Merriam-
Webster Dictionary. The finding is that the word “niduheñu" used by Dr. Joseph Palacio has
possible application to Taíno. I am including other words that have similarities between Taíno
and Garífuna. You can then see that “nitaíno" suffers changes like other words in order to become
a Garífuna word. Let’s keep in mind that the African tongue, Carib-Taíno-African
intermarriages, time, plus regions, are factors of changes in the transition process of this language
I want to further explain about the possible meaning of this word, “nitaíno”:
1. niduheñu my family, my people
2. nítainu my blood people
Breakdown of niduheñu.
niduhe my relative
niduheñu my relatives
Other possible meaning of nitaíno:
nita my blood
nítainu my blood people
Breakdown of nítaina/nítainu:
nita my blood
Words that have similar application to this second example (nítaina/nítainu)
nibe my kind
níbeina/níbeinu similar to me, plural.
I find “nitaina/nítainu” with closer similarity to the Taíno word: “nitaíno"
Best Regards, Ruben Reyes
Assuming this explanation by Mr. Ruben Reyes is correct, one thing is certain, “nitaíno” in Garífuna,
does not translate to “noble class.” There must be comparable, equivalent terms for “taíno” and “nitaíno”
in other Arawakan languages. Exploring their vocabulary may also help reveal why the word “taíno” was
so readily accepted among both the academics and laymen and why the word “nitaíno,” which actually
appears to mean “relative” or something similar, has been so erroneously accepted as meaning “good or
Exploring other Arawakan languages
• Lokono language and people
Origins—Northern Ta-Arawakan, Arawakan
Region—Guianas, Surinam, and Venezuela
The Lokono people refer to their language as Lokono Dian, meaning “people talk.” It is important to note
that although this Arawakan language is strikingly similar to Spanish accounts of the Taíno language,
there are also some very important differences. For example, Spaniards speculated that “taíno/nitaíno”
both meant “good and or noble.” In Lokono, however, the word for noble is “katua.”
In the course of this study, we had the good fortune to be introduced to a fluent Lokono speaker, Ivan
Cornelius, from the village of Wakapoa in Guyana. Ivan said that the word “Taíno” sounded similar to
him to “waiono,” which means “family” in his Lokono branch of the language. He also introduced the
word “isaino,” meaning “friend.” Assuming this fluent speaker is correct, then we can conclude that:
1) Nitaíno does not translate to “noble class” or “noblemen.”
2) Isaino and waiono both sound similar to nitaíno and basically express kinship or friendship, just
as in Garífuna.
• Wayuu/Goajiro language and people
Origins—Northern Arawakan, Ta-Arawakan, Wayuu
Region—Guajira Peninsula between Venezuela and Columbia
The Wayuu people, also known as Goajiro or Washiro, speak Wayuunaiki, a branch of the Arawakan
language group. They live on the Goajira Peninsula between Colombia and Venezuela and are the largest
Indigenous group in both countries. Never subjugated by the Spaniards, they lived in a constant state of
war up through the late 1700s, and most still speak their Native tongue, although most young Wayuu
today speak Spanish, too, in addition to Wayuuniki.
In 2013, a group of Garífuna speakers led by the Garífuna linguist, Dr. Ruben Reyes, visited with Wayuu
people and was astonished that they could readily communicate with their Maipuran-speaking relatives,
demonstrating just how closely related all these languages are. In the Wayuu language, the word “nutano”
means “relative” or “my relative.” It is very similar to “nitaíno.”
• Tupi-Guaraní connection?
Origins—Tupian; Sub-divisons—Guaraní, Guarayu, Tupi, Teneteharan, Kawahib- Kaiowa
Region—Brazil, Bolivia, French Guina, Peru
Tupi-Guaraní is not related to Arawakan, according to linguistic specialists, who say that Tupi is closer to
Cariban than to Arawak. Extensive linguistic borrowing, however, has taken place throughout the
Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America over the past centuries, so we notice that certain
similar words can be found in both Arawak and Tupi-Guaraní. One important word from Guaraní is
“tiehi” or “tiyi,” which means “clan, lineage or tribe.” Curiously, these words sound similar to “nitinon” a
Kalínago word meaning “friend.”
Did the Taíno speak Nu-Arawak, Ta-Arawak, or something else?
Perhaps “nitaíno” could have meant “our river relatives.” After all, the prefix “ni-“ means “water
or river,” and “taíno,” with the meaning of “friend/relative,” is indeed both plausible and fits our
hypothesis. A linguistic problem, however, arises within this context:
In Ta-Arawakan, the form of the first-person pronoun ‘I’ is “ta.” This is true in the Circum-
Caribbean region for Lokono, Wayuu, Taíno, and other Arawkan-based languages. In other Arawakan
languages “I” is “nu.” This is the basis for the classification of Arawak languages into Nu-Arawak and
Thus “ni” and “nu” in the form of the first person do not fit into Ta-Arawakan, where “I” is
“daka,” “dacha,” or “dakia,” and so on. The question thus becomes, how could the Classic Taíno, being
Ta-Arawakan speakers, use “nu” in the first person? Douglas Taylor states: “Mason tells us that in
Arawakan languages, “the first person pronoun is usually nu, whence the generic name Nu-Arawak.
Whereas Lokono has dakia dai (and affixial dA- and -da, v. Island Carib´s nV- and -na), Goajiro has taya
(and tA-), and Taíno has variously spelt dacha, daga, daca (and dA-). These latter forms (those beginning
with an apical stop) would therefore appear to be innovating as compared with the former (beginning with
n), among which are those of far-away Campa (nu) and Amesha (na).”
The Classic Taíno did not speak a “single” language, but rather several distinct dialects of
Arawak that were mutually intelligible.
The Greater Antillean region was not even purely Arawakan. Academics speculate that the
Guanahatabey people of Western Cuba may have arrived from North America or even from the Yucatan
thousands of years ago, but there is no record of their language. The same may be said of Ciboney, who
lived in Cuba as well as in Southwestern Hispaniola (today the Republic of Haiti). On Hispaniola, there
were also Taíno, Macorix, and Ciguayo. Julian Granberry states that the Macorix and Ciguayo peoples
and their languages were distinct from one another, according to witnesses of the period. He further
For a general language background on the Carribean and Circum-Caribbean Region, see: Comparative Arawakan
histories: Rethinking language family and cultural área in Amazonia, edited by J.D. Hill and F. Santos Granero;
Languages of the Precolumbian Antilles, by J. Granberry and G. Vescelius; Languages of the West Indies, by D.
Taylor; and La Guaraní Civilización by M. Santiago Bertoni.
believes that Ciguayo may have been the remnant of a much earlier language of the island, possibly of
Tolan origin, which is a native tongue in Central America. The Macorix may have been Warao speakers.
Linguists can trace back to when certain groups split from others linguistically. Archaeologists
and geneticists, on the other hand, affirm that there were at least two great migrations into the Caribbean
region. This implies that Nu-Arawakan and Ta-Arawakan could have been spoken independently in a
shared space as well as a mixture of the two.
We posit that it is entirely possible that both Nu- and Ta-Arawakan were spoken in the
Caribbean. Although examples are beyond the scope of this paper, this hypothesis would not be that
difficult to research. One may find, for example, that Kalínago and Garífuna, although having a common
origin, diverged, yet words from both languages can be very similar as well as very different. Kalínago
tends to show more similarity with Lokono. Lokono, on the other hand, has many differences when
compared to Wayuu. Yet Wayuu can be understood by Garífuna speakers! In the midst of all this is
Taíno. Although there is not enough linguistic data to confirm if the Taíno language is closer to Lokono,
Wayuu, Kalínago or Garífuna, the words and phrases we do have suggest that it was similar to all of
them. It is easy to imagine some Taíno as Nu-Arawakan speakers while others (and perhaps the majority)
were Ta-Arawakan speakers.
In October 2015, I (Jorge Estevez) visited the museum at the La Isabela National Park in the
Dominican Republic. This was the site of the first Spanish settlement in the Americas. Both Taíno and
Spanish remains have been found there. The town lies in the center of the chiefdom belonging to the
Taíno Cacique Guacanagarí, who welcomed Columbus to the island. The director of this museum, Diana
Peña-Bastalla, commented that they had unearthed pottery in the area from different cultural groups,
including Chicoide (Classic Taíno), Mellicoide (a branch of Taíno culture that developed in the Cibao
Valley and traveled to Cuba and Jamaica, in the process giving rise to the so called “Sub-Taíno” culture),
as well as pottery showing both Chican and Mellican influence, all within a single Classic Taíno
chiefdom! This implies that there was a great mixture of culture, religiosity, politics, and language among
the Natives of the island. So, how different were these groups from one another?
It is possible that part of the problem that exists when viewing the Caribbean is to think of its
cultural areas, religiosity, and languages as existing in boxes or blocks. The late great archaeologist Irving
Rouse’s hypothesis of the peopling of the Caribbean certainly does this. The reality, however, is that
groups living side by side borrowed heavily from each other, as has already been suggested. Thus Classic
Taíno would have and probably did have both Nu and Ta linguistic influences.
TERMS FOR “FRIEND,” “ RELATIVE” & “SIBLINGS” IN VARIOUS ARAWAKAN LANGUAGES
group of people
tiehi or tiyi
clan, lineage, tribe
We may never know for certain just exactly what our Classic Taíno ancestors´ word “nitaíno”
meant to them. We can, however, make some strong assertions.
Given the multitude of Indigenous chiefdoms, villages, and communities Caribbean-wide, it
makes absolutely no sense that there was one single name for the people we call Taíno today. They were
a very large, diverse, and widely dispursed population comprising non-tribal, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural
groups of people whom anthropologists say were on the cusp of evolving into a nation-state when
Spaniards arrived on the scene and put a screeching halt to their political, economic, and cultural
expansion. Their languages were Arawakan-based, and their landscape the Caribbean islands. Due to
close (but dispersed) proximity to each other, the individual groups must have appeared quite similar to
each other in the eyes of the Spaniards. No doubt there were regional, even island-wide differences, but
their substantial similarities to each other were more obvious to the Europeans.
As already stated, the Classic Taíno did not live in tribes but rather chiefdoms, which were highly
complex, and one can imagine that societies such as this would probably have fluid identities, thus
making it nearly impossible to pinpoint an exact ethnic designation.
American Indians across the Western Hemisphere recognized related people, and still do—this is
fact. Warfare has occasionally arisen among different groups, but there has also been keen recognition
among them as allegiances and territories shifted over time, recognition supported by peace agreements
made among the various groups´ leaders via marriage and other relationship-cementing methods such as
becoming “blood-brothers” or the bloodless guatiao ceremony, both of which create strong family ties,
just as binding as the family ties created by birth and marriage. Take, for example, the O’odham people of
Southern Arizona and Mexico. These people were not tribal until the United States government rounded
them up and placed them on reservations. Some lived in the desert country, while others lived near rivers.
Residing in family units, they would come together as a collective group when fighting off their Apache
and Navajo enemies. They refer to themselves as O’odham, but are known as either Tohono O’odham
(Desert People) or Akimel O’odham (River People).
In 2003, I was invited to attend an Encuentro Yoreme, a Native gathering in Sinaloa, Mexico. At
this grand event, Native Americans from Alaska to South America, as well as Pacific islanders, are
invited to a two-week event where they perform their native dances, share their cuisine, arts and crafts,
and other aspects of their respective Indigenous cultures. I had the pleasure of interacting with Mr.
Bernardo Esquer López of the Mayo people. The Mayo are considered to be Southern Yaqui, since they
and the Yaqui share the same language and culture. They collectively call themselves “Yoreme.” During
one of our many lengthy conversations, Bernardo Esquer stated: “When Yorem in the North fought the
Apache, we would receive word of this in Sonora and prepare to do battle, as the Apache are enemies to
all Yorem.” I was a bit perplexed by his statement, as I believed (correctly) that the Mayo villages did not
extend into Arizona or Texas. Bernardo Esquer then explained that to the Yoreme, all related peoples who
understand their language are called Yorem. Thus the Comanche and others were Yorem—relatives. At
least this is how I understood what he said. He also said that he could easily understand the O’odham,
Pima, Comanche, Shosone, and Pauite or Seri peoples´ languages.
This led me to speculate that perhaps the Taíno peoples may have had a similar structure.
Perhaps there was an epicenter where the so-called “Classic Taíno” lived (Dominican Republic/Haiti and
Puerto Rico), and perhaps other related peoples (as the Taíno expanded and conquered or absorbed other
groups) lived within and near the perimeters of Classic Taíno society. There must have been a collective
name for all similar, related peoples, probably extending to allies and even conquered groups.
Such a collective name is most likely linked to the connection between the words “taíno” and
“nitaíno.” It is quite possible that the Spaniards heard both this terms and recorded them, though not
understanding that one was used to identify relatives and/or allies, so it was closely linked to the
collective name Taíno. There is no question that both words were used by the peoples whom we call
Taíno today. Furthermore, words that are phonetically similar are to be found in the languages of the
closest relatives to the Taíno: Garífuna, Kalínago, Lokono, and Wayuu. As we have carefully noted, in
these related Indigenous languages, “nitaíno” and its derivatives mean “relative,” but Spaniards recorded
the word as meaning “noblemen.” Nonetheless, as seen through the examples provided in this research
(and there are many more examples) “nitaíno” was not and could not have been a class of noblemen.
That conclusion obviously came from Spaniards projecting their own society and its class divisions onto
what they thought they saw was the same system among the Indigenous Caribbean peoples. Neither
Christopher Columbus nor the Spaniards and other Europeans who sailed with him were linguists, they
were adventurers searching for gold, and for kingdoms and monarchs with whom to establish trade
In the past, researchers had to wait days, weeks, or even months in order to receive copies of
books, letters, or articles to assist in the investigation of a topic. Or they had to visit libraries across their
countries or abroad. Today, however, we have the Internet—information at your fingertips, albeit not
always reliable. Through the Internet´s social media, we are able to connect to actual Wayuu, Garífuna, or
Lokono speakers, who are then able to confirm or deny for us any questions related to any given linguistic
hypothesis. This is one of the methods we employed for this article. Not to discount the great work that
various linguists have done in the past and are still doing, but it stands to reason that a linguist whose
expertise is, for example, the Lokono language, does not understand said language better than a native
speaker of that language. Indeed, we must use both sources in order to create a clearer picture of unclear
One thing is certain, we are closer to the truth than ever before and it all points to “Taíno” being a
collective identifier for the Indigenous Circum-Caribbean peoples of Arawakan-based speech. Note that
this hypothesis is not new. Raymond Breton, for example, had come to similar conclusions
pertaining to this subject in the late 1600s, as he stated in the collection entitled, Comparative
Arawakan Histories, Rethinking Language Family and Cultural Area in Amazonia.
To repeat some of the key points that this article wishes to make:
“Taíno” was not the tribal name of individual chiefdoms.
The Classic Taíno were multi-cultural, multi-ethnic groups of peoples, who were, nonetheless,
extremely similar to each other due to living collectively on the islands for some 6,000 years or
“Nitaíno” and the closely linked term “taíno” are the collective identifiers for all related peoples
in the Caribbean, be they clans, family, extended family, close friends, and perhaps allies.
“Nitaíno” was not a class of noblemen, but rather an exploratory greeting in the same vein, for
example, as when a Latino person asks another, “Are you Hispanic? (¿Eres hispano”?
The words “taíno” and “nitaíno” come from the Tainan language.
Due to all of the above, the application of the name Taíno and its current use to identify the
Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and their closely related languages is the best word we have
to describe the Classic Taíno peoples and their descendants. And most importantly, the term does
Only by cross checking many of the Indigenous words that survived the European Conquest of
the Circum-Caribbean or that were recorded by the Spanish Chroniclers, along with words from
other Arawakan languages, can we begin to truly decipher the rich language of our ancestors.
We plan to continue these linguistic investigations into the various Indigenous languages of the
Caribbean and Circum-Caribbean—and we seek the help of professional linguists, laymen with
similar interests, and especially Native speakers, with the multiple aims of recording for posterity
these disappearing languages, better understanding our ancestors, and carrying on their rich and
extensive cultural legacy.
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© Jorge Estevez and Rene Pérez de Liciaga