Taíno language

Taíno is an extinct Arawakan language that was spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean. At the time of Spanish contact, it was the most common language throughout the Caribbean. Classic Taíno (Taíno proper) was the native language of the Taíno tribes living in the northern Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and most of Hispaniola, and expanding into Cuba. The Ciboney dialect is essentially unattested, but colonial sources suggest it was very similar to Classic Taíno, and was spoken in the westernmost areas of Hispaniola, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and most of Cuba.

Native toBahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla
EthnicityTaíno, Ciboney, Lucayan, Yamaye
Extinct19th century[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3tnq
Languages of the Caribbean.png
Taíno dialects, among other Pre-Columbian languages of the Antilles

By the late 15th century, Taíno had displaced earlier languages, except in western Cuba and pockets in Hispaniola. As the Taíno culture declined during Spanish colonization, the language was replaced by Spanish and other European languages, like English and French. It is believed to have been extinct within 100 years of contact,[1] but possibly continued to be spoken in isolated pockets in the Caribbean until the late 19th century.[2] As the first indigenous language encountered by Europeans in the New World, it was a major source of new words borrowed into European languages.


Granberry & Vescelius (2004) distinguish two dialects, one on Hispaniola and further east, and the other on Hispaniola and further west.

  • Classic (Eastern) Taíno, spoken in Classic Taíno and Eastern Taíno cultural areas. These were the Lesser Antilles north of Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, central Hispaniola, and the Turks & Caicos (from an expansion in ca. 1200). Classic Taíno was expanding into eastern and even central Cuba at the time of the Spanish Conquest, perhaps from people fleeing the Spanish in Hispaniola.
  • Ciboney (Western) Taíno, spoken in Ciboney and Lucayan cultural areas. These were most of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas.

Columbus wrote that "...from Bahama to Cuba, Boriquen to Jamaica, the same language was spoken in various slight dialects, but understood by all."[3]


The Taíno language was not written. The Taínos used petroglyphs,[4] but there has been little research in the area. The following phonemes are reconstructed from Spanish records:[5]

Reconstructed Taíno consonants
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless p t k (c/qu)
voiced b d
Fricative s h (j/g)
Nasal m n
Approximant w (gu) l j (i/y)

There was also a flap [ɾ], which appears to have been an allophone of /d/.

Reconstructed Taíno vowels
Front Central Back
Close i [u]
Mid e (ei)
ɛ (e)
Open a

A distinction between /ɛ/ and /e/ is suggested by Spanish transcriptions of e vs ei/ey, as in ceiba "ceiba". The /e/ is written ei or final é in modern reconstructions. There was also a high back vowel [u], which was often interchangeable with /o/ and may have been an allophone.

There was a parallel set of nasal vowels. The only consonant at the end of a syllable or of a word was /s/.


Taíno is not well attested.[1] However, from what can be gathered, nouns appear to have had noun-class suffixes, as in other Arawakan languages. Attested Taíno possessive prefixes are da- 'my', wa- 'our', li- 'his' (sometimes with a different vowel), and to-, tu- 'her'.[5]

Verb-designating affixes are a-, ka-, -a, -ka, -nV in which "V" is an unknown or changeable vowel. This suggests that, like many other Arawakan languages, verbal conjugation for a subject resembled the possessive prefixes on nouns.

The negation prefix is ma- meanwhile the attributive prefix is ka- as in makabuka "it is not important" or "not important". This has been compared to Kalinago's -bouca suffix which designates the past tense. Hence, the sentence can be interpreted as meaning "without a past." However, makabuka could also be compared to Kalinago's aboúcacha 'to scare'. This verb is shared in various Caribbean Arawakan languages such as Lokono (bokaüya 'to scare, frighten') and Parauhano (apüüta 'to scare').

Some conjugated verbs include Daka (I am), Waiba (We go), Warike (We see)

Attested object suffix includes -wo (we, us) as in ahiyawoka ("speak to us").[6]


English words derived from Taíno include: barbecue, caiman, canoe, cassava, cay, guava, hammock, hurricane, hutia, iguana, macana, maize, manatee, mangrove, maroon, potato, savanna, and tobacco.[3]: 229 

Taíno loanwords in Spanish include: agutí, ají, auyama, batata, cacique, caoba, guanabana, guaraguao, jaiba, loro, maní, maguey (also rendered magüey), múcaro, nigua, querequequé, tiburón, and tuna,[7] as well as the previous English words in their Spanish form: barbacoa, caimán, canoa, casabe,[8] cayo, guayaba, hamaca, huracán, iguana, jutía, macana,[9] maíz, manatí, manglar, cimarrón, patata, sabana, and tabaco.

Place namesEdit

Place names of Taíno origin include:[5]

  • Haiti: ha-yi-ti 'land of mountains'
  • Quisqueya (Hispaniola): kis-ke-ya 'great thing' or 'native land'
  • Bahamas: ba-ha-ma 'large-upper-middle'
  • Bimini: bimini 'twins'
  • Inagua: i-na-wa 'small eastern land'
  • Caicos: ka-i-ko 'near-northern-outlier'
  • Boriquén (Puerto Rico, also rendered Borikén, Borinquen): borīkē, borī ("native") -kē ("land") 'native land'
  • Jamaica: Ya-mah-ye-ka 'great spirit of the land of man'
  • Cayman Islands: cai-man 'crocodile' or 'alligator'
  • Cuba: cu-bao 'great fertile land'


  1. ^ a b c Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (2012). The Languages of the Amazon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Reyes, David (2004). "The Origin and Survival of the Taíno Language" (PDF). Issues in Caribbean Amerindian Studies. 5 (2). Retrieved February 19, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel (1836). "The Haytian or Taino Language". The American Nations. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, C. S. Rafinesque. pp. 215–253.
  4. ^ "Taino Symbol What some symbols mean?".
  5. ^ a b c Granberry, Julian; Vescelius, Gary (2004). Languagues of the Pre-Columbian Antilles. The University of Alabama Press. p. 92.
  6. ^ Estevez, Jorge (n.d.). Origins of the Word "Taíno". Retrieved 10 June 2018 – via Academia.edu.
  7. ^ Ballew, Dora (2017-10-05). "The Freaky Mexican Fruit That Can Give You Splinters". OZY. Retrieved 2020-01-26.
  8. ^ "casabe". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-11-18.
  9. ^ "macana". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-11-18.


  • Payne D.L., "A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions", in: Derbyshire D.C., Pullum G.K. (eds.), Handbook of Amazonian Languages, vol. 3, Berlin, 1991.
  • Derbyshire D.C., "Arawakan languages", in: Bright, William (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, vol. 1, New York, 1992.