Barbecue isn’t our sole Caribbean loanword, although it almost is. Fewer than 20 English words have been borrowed from native Caribbean tongues.
Words from the Caribbean having an African origin are more plentiful. This is because, to discourage uprisings, slavers separated their human cargo aboard ship so that those from the same village had no contact with one another. Consequently, African creoles arose during the long voyages. These creoles, of course, also included vocabulary from the languages of the slave ships’ crews — Spanish, English, French and Dutch.
When the slaves were dumped on the various Caribbean islands, the creoles took on vocabulary from the Indian inhabitants — Caribs, Arawaks, Taino, Garifuna, for example.
Today, Caribbean creoles are considered to be the richest of all creoles. Creole is a national language of Haiti where it has co-official status with French. Unsurprisingly, Haitian Creole’s vocabulary is 90 per cent French in origin.
The word creole originated in the 16th century in the Latin crear/creatum (to beget). We got it through both French (créole) and Spanish (criollo), both of which languages lifted it from the Portuguese crioulo (to nurse; to breed). Creole is a pidgin which became a language. Pidgin is a makeshift tongue native to no one.
Of course, the indigenous island peoples had their own languages, several of which are now extinct. Sadly, these native languages have left almost no footprint in English.
The Caribbean Sea and its islands take their name from the Carib Indians, a warlike people who lived throughout the islands. The word Caribbean was first recorded in 1492 by Columbus.
Carib means “brave men” in the Carib language and it is the source of our English word cannibal. Success With Words says cannibal comes from Caniba or Cariba, names of the people of Cuba and Haiti who are recorded to have been cannibals. Cannibal first appeared in English in 1553.
Most Canadians probably think canoe originated here, but it is Arawak Caribbean (canoa), another word first recorded by Columbus. We took this word in 1555. It may also surprise you to learn that hammock is of Caribbean origin. We borrowed it from the Spanish hamaca in 1555, but it is originally from the Taino language.
Hurricane (1555) originated in the Carib huracan. The Indian corn we call maize (1565) is from the Cuban Taino word mahiz. Manatee, the large hairless sea mammal believed to be the animal sailors thought was a mermaid, was named manati by the Caribs, a word meaning “beast” in their language.
The tropical tree, the mangrove, takes its name from the Taino mangle (grove). Caiman, a Central American alligator-like reptile, is from the Carib cayman, as is the name of the Cayman Islands. Some scholars speculate, however, that this word might not be of native Caribbean origin and might actually be African.
There are two correct pronunciations of Caribbean — either kar-i-BEE-an or ka-RIB-ee-an. Originally known as the Caribees or les Caraïbes, these beautiful islands will probably always be favourite holiday destinations for Canadians.