Endangered Language Alliance
Garifuna belongs 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.
“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 downward 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 most areas in Belize (Bonner 2001) and Guatemala. 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.
Garifuna represents a rare example of a language which shows no signs of creolization and or substrate effects (from African languages) despite having been originally acquired via peer-to-peer learning rather than by canonical intergenerational transmission.
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 (Aikhenvald 1999:74-75). 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 speech sounds of Garifuna are relatively simple, as seen in the phoneme inventory below. The only unusual sound is the nasalized palatal glide /j̃/, but this has been alternatively analyzed as a regular oral glide /j/ preceding /n/. The sound /p/ in the modern language is only found in borrowings. The /p/ of Island Carib has become /f/ in Garifuna, as can be seen in such pairs as…
Other changes include k → g (with some exceptions).
|Unvoiced affricate||tʃ [ch]|
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following two sentences exemplify many of Garifuna’s fascinating grammatical properties.
Note the following:
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.