Arawakan Languages - Geographic Distribution

Geographic Distribution

The Arawakan languages are spoken over a large swath of territory, from the eastern slopes of the central Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia, across the Amazon basin of Brazil, southward into Paraguay and northward into to Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia on the northern coast of South America, and even as far north as Belize and Guatemala. It is the largest family in the Americas with the respect to number of languages (also including much internal branching) and covers the widest geographical area of any language group in Latin America. It is possible that some poorly-attested extinct languages in North America, such as the Cusabo and Congaree in South Carolina were members of this family.

Taíno, commonly called Island Arawak, was spoken on the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Many of the Taino descendants today speak English or Spanish peppered with a few Taino words. The Taíno language was very scantily attested; however, its classification within the Arawakan family is uncontroversial. Its closest relative among the better attested Arawakan languages seems to be the Goajiro language, spoken in Colombia. It has been suggested that the Goajiro are descended from Taíno refugees, but the theory seems impossible to prove or disprove.

The Carib people (after whom the Caribbean was named) formerly lived throughout the Lesser Antilles. In the seventeenth century, the language of the Island Carib was described by European missionaries as two separate unrelated languages—one spoken by the men of the society and the other by the women. The language spoken by the men was a language of the Carib family very similar to the Galibi language spoken in what later became French Guyana. The language spoken by the woman belonged to the Arawakan language family. One might conclude, though there is a minimum of supporting evidence, that the Carib language was first spoken in eastern Venezuela and the Guyanas. Also, because this peculiar dual gender-specific language arrangement was unstable and dynamic and cannot have been very old, the Carib speakers had only recently migrated north into the Lesser Antilles at the time of European contact, displacing or assimilating the Arawaks in the process.

The Island Carib language is now extinct, although Caribs still live on Dominica, Trinidad, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Despite its name, Island Carib was an Arawak language, as is its derived modern language Garífuna (or Black Carib), which is thought to have about 590,000 speakers in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. The Garifuna are the descendants of Caribs and black escaped slaves of African origin, transferred by the British from Saint Vincent to islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1796. The Garifuna language continues the women's Arawak-based Island Carib language and only a few traces remain of the men's Carib speech.

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