Arawakan languages: Wikis


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Widest geographical area of any language group in Latin America, see Geographic distribution.
ISO 639-5: awd
Maipurean languages (blue), Guajiboan Languages (violet) and Arauan Languages (green). Shadowed areas represent probable extension at the time of contact.

The Arawakan languages (also Arahuacan, Arawakanas, Arahuacano, Maipurean, Maipuran, Maipureano, Maipúrean) are an indigenous language family of South America and the Caribbean.

Originally the name Arawak was used exclusively for a powerful tribe in Netherlands Antilles, Guyana and Suriname. The tribe became allies of the Spanish because they traditionally were enemies of the Carib groups with whom the Spanish were at war. Forms of the Arawak language are still spoken in Suriname.


Arawakan vs. Maipuran

The term Arawakan has been used in two senses. In one usage Arawakan is synonymous to what has recently been called the Maipurean or Maipuran family, a core family of undoubtedly related languages. In other words, Arawakan and Maipurean are interchangeable.

However, in recent years, the two terms are no longer synonymous where Maipurean refers to the core family of undoubtedly related languages and Arawakan refers to a larger and hypothetical phylum at a level above Maipurean. In this sense, Maipurean is a sub-grouping under a (macro-)Arawakan stock along with Guajiboan, Arauan, Candoshi, the two Harakmbut languages, and the extinct Puquina.

Kaufman (1990: 40) relates the following:

[The Arawakan] name is the one normally applied to what is here called Maipurean. Maipurean used to be thought to be a major subgroup of Arawakan, but all the living Arawakan languages, at least, seem to need to be subgrouped with languages already found within Maipurean as commonly defined. The sorting out of the labels Maipurean and Arawkan will have to await a more sophisticated classification of the languages in question than is possible at the present state of comparative studies.


The languages called Arawakan or Maipuran were originally recognized as a separate group in the late nineteenth century. Almost all the languages now called Arawakan share a first-person singular prefix nu-, but Arawak proper has ta-. Other commonalities include a second-person singular pi-, relative ka-, and negative ma-.

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.

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.


Internal classification remains controversial. Few Arawakan languages are well attested, and there are considerable difficulties in distinguishing genealogical relatedness from areal features with current data. For now, only the lowest levels of classification are reliable.


Aikhenvald (1999)

Arawakan (73 languages)

  • Guajiban (5 languages; Guajibo proper has 20,000 speakers)
  • Arauán (8 or 9 languages; Culina has 1300 speakers)
  • Maipuran (60 languages)
    • Northern Maipuran
      • Palikur (1 language, c. 1200 speakers)
      • Wapishana-Caribbean (includes Ta-Arawak. 7 languages; Wayuu [Goajiro] c. 300,000 speakers, Garífuna [Black Carib] c. 100,000 speakers)
      • Inland (15 languages; Baniwa has 3-4000 speakers, Piapoco c. 3000)
    • Southern Maipuran
      • Campa (10 languages; Asháninca or Campa proper has 15-18,000 speakers, Ashéninca 18-25,000)
      • Central (6 languages; Piro has c. 300 speakers)
      • Amuesha (2 languages; Yanesha' has 6-8,000 speakers)
      • Purus-Parana (10 languages, inc. Apurinã, Moxo, Terêna; Terêna has 10,000 speakers)

There are, in addition, 9 unclassified Maipuran languages.

See also

External links


  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (1999). The Arawak language family. In R. M. W. Dixon & A. Y. Aikhenvald (Eds.), The Amazonian languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57021-2; ISBN 0-521-57893-0.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Derbyshire, Desmond C. (1992). Arawakan languages. In W. Bright (Ed.), International encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 1, pp. 102-105). New Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version:
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1990). Language history in South America: What we know and how to know more. In D. L. Payne (Ed.), Amazonian linguistics: Studies in lowland South American languages (pp. 13-67). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70414-3.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1994). The native languages of South America. In C. Mosley & R. E. Asher (Eds.), Atlas of the world's languages (pp. 46-76). London: Routledge.
  • Migliazza, Ernest C.; & Campbell, Lyle. (1988). Panorama general de las lenguas indígenas en América (pp. 223). Historia general de América (Vol. 10). Caracas: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia.
  • Payne, David. (1991). A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In D. C. Derbyshire & G. K. Pullum (Eds.), Handbook of Amazonian languages (Vol. 3, pp. 355-499). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


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