6 Words The English Owe To A Lost Caribbean Language

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Not too many people outside of academia will be familiar with the Taino. The Taino were Arawak natives originally from southern America who had colonised a number of Caribbean islands and parts of modern day Florida. They didn’t survive long after contact with Spanish colonialists at the end of the 15th century, the result of disease and enslavement. Despite this, elements of their culture percolated into colonial European cultures and have survived to this day. Historic Taino sites have been preserved and reconstructed on a number of Caribbean islands as heritage centres, such as New Seville in Jamaica which marks the coming together of European, African and Native American peoples. Culture Trip looks at some for the words we owe to the lost Caribbean language of the Taino.

Place names – Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba

One formerly English, one French and one Spanish Island which today still speak their respective European languages actually have Taino names: Xamaika for Jamaica; Ayti for Haiti; and Cubao for Cuba. More generically, the word Kaya or Cay in English refers to a small island and is common across the Caribbean, whereas a variation Key is familiar in Florida.

Havana, Cuba

Hamaka – Hammock

That comfortable resting place where we all dream of lounging when spending time on a Caribbean beach owes its name to the Taino. The word is thought to originally mean fish-net and was documented by early Spanish colonialists who traded with the Taino. Hammocks became popular with European sailors as a comfortable place to sleep on ship and thus found their way into western culture.

Hammock on beach

Kanowa – Canoe

Canoes are the boats originally thought to have been used by the Taino to travel from South American rivers and across the Caribbean. Their use was heavily documented by the Spanish who made first contact with the native peoples. The average Taino canoe would carry 15-20 people, but were often much larger.


Barabakoa – Barbecue

This Taino method of preparing meat by cooking it on a grill of sticks above a flame was first documented by Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés, in 1526. Its first documented use as a verb in the English language was made in 1661 in Jamaica.

Meat cooking on a BBQ

Batata – Potato

Used by the Taino as the name for what is now called a sweet potato, the English derivation, probably via the Spanish patata later became used for the potato which originated in Peru. This staple of the western diet was first exported to Europe by the Spanish in the second half of the 16th century.

Sweet potatoes

Tabaka – Tobacco

Finding its way into English via the Spanish tabaco, this plant was popularly chewed or smoked in a pipe as documented by Spanish explorers such as Oviedo. Tobacco use was originally thought to have been for ceremonial or medicinal purposes rather than the recreational stimulant it was quickly to become.

Tobacco plant

So there we have it. Holiday makers who spend their time in Jamaica or Cuba lounging in a hammock while eating grilled chicken and fries should spare a thought for the largely forgotten native people who made it all possible.

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