English words we get from Taino

taino people

Who are the Taino?

Before the arrival of the European colonists in the 15th century, the Taino people lived in the Caribbean. They formed the main indigenous populations of the islands which are now called Cuba, Jamaica, Hispanola Trinidad, and Puerto Rico.

On Hispaniola, which is now split into the Dominican Republic and Haiti, there were 5 separate Taino chiefdoms.

Taino social structures were complex. Their spiritual practice was based on zemis, which were spirits or ancestors of natural things and people. They were very skilled at fishing, farming and navigating. Taino were also highly creative, and had a rich culture of music, poetry and dance.

Today, although the Arawakan language Taino is mostly extinct, there are still people who identify as Taino in the DR. Recently, they discovered that a high percentage of people living in Puerto Rico and the DR today have a tri-racial ancestry of Taino, Spanish and African heritage.

Taino words in your everyday

Sadly, the language of the Taino people was never written down so we don’t know that much detail about the grammatical structures and vocabulary.

However, some Taino words survived to influence language and made their way into modern English, Spanish and French.

The Caribbean is a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable varieties. It is therefore fitting that we received the words cassava, guava, maize, and potato from the Taino language.

Word histories are often uncertain, but there are those who think the words banana, coconut, cocoa, tomato and yam also have roots in Taino.

It makes sense that we get the words caiman, cay, mangrove, tobacco and canoe from the indigenous Caribbean peoples. But, more unexpectedly, they also gave us indigo, mahogany and savannah.

Savannah came through the Spanish ‘sabana’ but was a Taino word ‘zabana’ for sheet. A savannah nowadays is a large plain grassland.

You may well associate savannahs with Africa, given that nearly half of this massive continent is covered in the sparse grasslands. There are significant savannahs in South America, India and Australia, too.

Hammocks were used by the Taino people to keep off the ground and out of reach of insects. Their word ‘hamaca’, meaning fish net, came into Spanish and then English. The Spanish colonists adapted the Taino hammock idea so they could sway in their ships, and not fall out of bed!

We get the word hurricane from the Taino ‘hurakan’, or ‘god of the storm’.

The word Caribbean itself actually comes from the Caribe people, a word thought to mean person or human in Taino.

The interchangeable sounds of ‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘n’ in Taino dialects was confusing for the Spanish colonists. Our word ‘cannibal’ actually comes from a mishearing of the word ‘Caribe’, the tribe that ate human flesh. The Spanish heard ‘Caniba’ and so began calling the flesh-eating practice ‘cannibalism’ after the tribe.

Taino language after Columbus

The research into Taino culture is very limited. Historians estimate that the Taino language became extinct only about 100 years after the European colonisers arrived. Trade relations between the Spanish, led by Colombus, and the Taino appear to have begun in a friendly way.

But, sadly, as the story so often goes, the colonists became violent and controlling. The Spanish sailors did not bring any women with them. They raped Taino women and disrupted the indigeonus gene pool with European heritage. They also brought diseases which nearly wiped out the Taino people.

It is but a small crumb that some of the Taino language is preserved in European languages. The history of the Dominican Republic heavily involves the violence of colonialism, which continues to affect the culture today.

Today, we are grateful for the beauty of the Caribbean, but we must remember our enjoyment has come at great cost to the indigenous populations.