Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Taino Vocabulary

The following vocabulary is not an exhaustive linguistic study of the Taíno language. I am not a linguist (as of yet), but rather an aficionado and an enthusiast. The objective of this list is to take a short step back into our ancestral consciousness and awaken those sweet words spoken by the Taíno. These words were used and many are still in use, in the vernacular Spanish of the Greater Antilles and abroad. The greater part of Taíno terms that were passed on over generations speak of the flora and fauna of our environment, in addition to household items, food, place names, personal names and a multitude of other miscellaneous words; some are even used with idiomatic expressions in Caribbean Spanish! There are also occurrences where over time Taíno words have evolved to mean something other than its original meaning. For example, in some parts of Kiskeya (Dominican Republic), children are referred to as kakona or derivatives of this word. Hundreds of years ago Las Casas recorded the same word meaning objects; trinkets of worth or something of value. Today, the word kayuko which is a type of small canoe has come to refer to the trough used to hold food or water for animals because it looks just like a kayuko. In Kiskeya the word kayuko is also the name of a cactus. In the spirit of linguists Manuel Alvarez Nazario, José Juan Arrom, Douglas Taylor and Julian Granberry the following Taíno words are written with a clearer understanding of the orthographies in which they were documented. For example, the letter /x/ in archaic Spanish was used to represent the /sh/ sound as in shoe or shower. As late as the 15th century during the conquest of the Caribbean, Spanish chroniclers documented native words as they heard them and used the /x/ to represent this sound- axí /a-shi/, bixa /bi-sha/, komexén /ko-me-shen/ /, warionéx /wa-ri-o-nesh/ or xarawá /sha-ra-wa/. Presently these words are sounded with an aspirated /h/ when originally they were sounded as /sh/. So today you will hear ahí and komehén instead. Another spelling convention that is commonly used in Spanish is /gua/. The use of /gua/ in words such as guaraguao, guabá, higuaka, guatiao, himagua and guare is actually a spelling system used by Spanish speakers to convey the /wa/ sound! So the words just mentioned above were actually heard as warawao, wabá, hiwaka, watiao, himawa and ware by Las Casas, Pané and other chroniclers. For Spanish speakers the /wa/ sound can prove difficult to pronounce. Therefore in the 15th and 16th Century Spanish chroniclers used /gua/ when writing Taíno words to better approximate the /wa/ sound that they heard. Father Raymond Breton, a 17th Century French missionary who learned to speak the Karifuna language that was spoken in Wáitukubulí (Dominica) recorded words that were similar if not the same in Taíno which included words that possess the /wa/ sound, for example: watiaon ‘our friend’, walápana ‘soursop’ and yawála ‘species of palm’ in Karifuna all correspond to watíao, wanábana and yawa in Taíno with the same meaning! But just don’t take my word for it; the above mentioned linguists have all written extensively on this. Comparative studies of other related Arawakan languages such as Lokono, Karifuna (an Arawakan language of the Lesser Antilles incorrectly labeled Island Carib) and Garifuna (modern Karifuna) akin to Taíno, has shed much light on the meaning of words and has enhanced our understanding of Taíno phonology. Karifuna was the language spoken by the present day Kalínago (also known as Island Carib) of the Lesser Antilles. Another great resource that I recommend for information on Karifuna and other Arawakan languages is a website by linguist K. Marie Josephs at! At the end of this paper I will refer you to a number of voluminous Taíno Dictionaries complied by renowned authors such as Emiliano Tejera, Alfonso Zayas and Luis Hernandez Aquino to name a few. I want to thank a good friend of mine , Jorge Estevez, whose knowledge of all things Taíno has contributed many overlooked words to this vocabulary. I also want to acknowledge José Boriwéx Laboy a scholar and mentor whose insightful and profound knowledge of Taíno has always inspired me.


Related vocabulary in other Arawakan languages will be given at times to show the similarities with Taíno.
· Occasionally I will give the Latin name of the Flora and Fauna after the word. You can use the Latin name to search the internet and possibly view a photo and get background information on a particular species.
· In some instances Taíno words will have an accent mark placed over the vowel that is stressed. For example in the word Taíno /ta-i-no/- emphasis or stress of the word will fall on the second syllable of the word; and Borikén /bo-ri-ken/ ‘Puerto Rico’- emphasis or stress of the word will fall on the last syllable.
· The vowels are pronounced as you would in Spanish and the consonants as in English except for /d/, /r/ and /x/. The letter /d/ has a softer sound as used in Spanish. The /r/ is slightly rolled as in Spanish and the /x/ is sounded as /sh/ as in the words shoe or shower.
· The cedilla /ç/ is a letter that was used in archaic Spanish and still used in some French words to represent the /ts/ sound. To make this sound you start with /t/ and then follow immediately with /s/.
· The letter /h/ is aspirated as in the English word ‘house’.
· When the letter /n/ comes at the end of a word, the vowel preceding the /n/ is nasalized.


In most Arawakan languages including Taíno the names of body parts are always spoken with a possessive pronoun, for example dako /da-ko/ ‘eyes’; literally ‘my eyes’. Some other nouns as well are spoken with a possessive pronoun and not independently. In this list some words are written with a hyphen in front or at the end indicating that this is a root and is not usually said without a prefix or an affix attached.

-ako eye(s); In Karifuna –áku, Garifuna -águ and Lokono akússi ‘eye(s).
Xeíti kako black, dark colored eyes; xeíti ‘black’ + ka- ‘attributive, having’ + -ako ‘eye(s)’
Buti kako blue, light colored eyes; buti ‘blue’ + ka- ‘attributive, having’ + -ako ‘eye(s)’
-ahi- tooth, teeth
Mahite toothless; literally meaning ‘without teeth’; ma- ‘without’ + -ahi- ‘tooth’ + -te ‘noun-designator’
-arima anus, buttocks; end; In Karifuna árima with the same meaning.
Çimú means the front or face of something; e.g. Kayçimú ‘the beginning of or front of the Island’; kayo ‘island’ + çimú ‘front; beginning; face of’.


Adamanai, adamanei The Island of Saona; located southeast of the Dominican Republic.
Amona Island presently named Mona; a territory of Puerto Rico; located off the Western coast between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In Taíno, mona means ‘land’
Ay-ay Island of St. Croix.
Bieke Vieques
Biminí a small island north of kuba and east of the Florida peninsula; according to Granberry bimini means “twins”.
Bohío name of the entire island shared by Haití and the Dominican Republic; bohío means house or home.
Borikén Puerto Rico
Kiskeya name that still refers to the Dominican Republic; According to Julian Granberry this word does not follow Taíno phonology, but rather is related more to the Tol language of Central America.
Kuba Cuba; According to José Juan Arrom da-kuban ‘my field’ in Lokono contains the word a-koba, a-kuba and u-kuba all meaning ‘field, ground’. The initial vowel a- or u- is not part of the root word but a prefix that denotes the general character of the word. In Taíno Kuba signifies ‘land; homeland or province’; In Lokono Kuba can mean ‘plot or tract of land or territory’.
Wáitukubulí Dominica; this is a Karifuna word meaning “Tall Is Her Body”.
Wanahaní the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas; “Stress falls on the last syllable of the word” –Las Casas.
Xamaika Jamaica


Anakawita /petiveria apetala / Panama tree
Anamú garlic weed, congo root
Ara tree, wood; In Lokono ada means ‘tree’
Auyama pumpkin
Axí, ahí capsicum, red pepper; today it is pronounced with an aspirated /h/, ahí /a-hi/
Ayraka reeds, rush
Hikako coco plum; In Karifuna ikáku.
Hobo /spondias mombin L/; In Karifuna úbu and in Lokono hóbo with the same meaning.
Koçuba name referring to the outer covering of a kernel of the corn.
Maní peanut; In Karifuna Mánli.
Papaya papaya; In Karifuna abábai and in Lokono papaya.
Tabonúko resinous tree; the substance or resin that exudes from this tree is also called tabonuko; it was used to repair damages on canoes and as incense; today it is still used as incense as well as in ceremonies.
Tusa the cob of the corn.
Wahana the top part or crown of a corn-stalk.
Wanábana soursop; In Karifuna walápana and in Lokono warafana with the same meaning.
Wayaba guava
Xawa /Sha-wa//Genipa americana/ a tree that can grow up to a height of sixty feet whose fruit, with the same name, is used to make a refreshing drink popularly called mabí de jagua; The sap from the tree produces a black dye that can be used to tint cloth; it was also commonly used for body painting. In Wáitukubulí (Dominica), Father Raymond Breton recorded the same word in Karifuna, written in 17th century French as Chaoüa pronounced Sháwa. Today in the Greater Antilles it is pronounced with an aspirated /h/, hagua.
Yawa a native Caribbean palm tree also known in Spanish as palma real; In Karifuna yawála and Lokono awára with the same meaning.


Arabuko forest, woodland; According to Julian Granberry the suffix -buko means ‘a large area of land’. The word for tree in Taíno is ara; you can see the same word for tree in Karifuna arábu ‘forest’, as well as, in Lokono ada ‘tree’.
Babinéy a murky or muddy lagoon.
Baguada a storm or bad weather coming in from the sea; this word can still be heard today. It is still in use by the older generation. Baguada is composed of the Taíno word bawa meaning ‘sea’ with the Spanish suffix ending –da.
Bawa, bahawa sea; In Karifuna baráwa with the same meaning.
Çabana savannah; “Stress falls on the second syllable” –Las Casas.
Çiba rock, stone
Çibanko rough-uneven rocky land.
Hobin copper; any type of reddish metallic.
Hurakán hurricane
Kamúy sun
Kaona gold
Karaya moon
Kaya Island; In Karifuna akáera and in Lokono kaíri with the same meaning.
Kayo a very small Island; islet.
Konuko cultivated fields; In Arawak kúnnuku ‘forest’.
Maniwa heavily forested area covered in shrubs, behuko ‘vines’ and underbrush.
Mawá fertile lowland; “Stress given to the last syllable of the word” -Las Casas.
Mawána small fertile lowland; According to Las Casas the addition of the suffix –na to mawá ‘fertile lowland’ acts as a diminutive, indicating that something is small or smaller- mawána.
Mona land
Sao land that is generally covered in lots of thicket and underbrush.
Tabuko land covered mostly in thicket and underbrush.
Tibe hard and smooth river rock; these rocks have been used by locals to sharpen their machetes.
Turéy sky
Wadá garden
Xara /sha-ra/ according to Granberry, this word means ‘lake’.
Xawéy a natural sink-hole found amongst coastal rocks where deposits of fresh water collect; the word is also associated with caves and grottos. Breton recorded the same word in Karifuna written in 17th century French as Chaoüai pronounced Shaway. Today it is pronounced with an aspirated /h/, hagüey.


-abon, -abo current; river; The indigenous name of many rivers end in this suffix. E.g. usabón ‘a good river; Usabón is the name of a river that flows through Aibonito and Barranquitas, Puerto Rico; In Lokono the root ùsan means ‘good’.
-abo a suffix indicating ‘an abundance of something’; For example, if there was a hill with some Hobo trees it would be called Hobabo ‘place of many Hobos’; Mayabo ‘place of many Mayas’; Maya is the name of a plant.
-ao suffix indicating an abundance of e.g. Kaonao “Place where there is an abundance of gold”. Kaona means gold in Taíno.
-buko large area of land; e.g. arabuko= ara ‘tree(s)’ + -buko means ‘forest’, ‘woodland’.
Da- I; my; mine
Daka ‘I am’
Datiao my friend; da- ‘my’ + -tiao ‘friend’
-el ‘son of’; e.g. yayael ‘son of yaya’
ka- an attributive prefix meaning ‘to have’; ‘with’.
Nakán middle (of a place); In Lokono anaka or anakan; both mean ‘in the middle or ‘in the center’.
Watiao our friend; wa- ‘our’ + -tiao ‘friend’.
Waibá /wa- ‘we’ + -ibá ‘go’/ Let us leave, let’s go; in karifuna wáiba with the exact same meaning!


Maubeka /parra colodris/ American Golden plover
Güincho (gween-cho) /falco carolinense/American Osprey
Huí (hwee) /myarchus antillarum/ Antilliean Stolid Flycatcher
Kereketé, kerekeké /chordeiles minor vicinus/ Bahaman Common Nighthawk; a migratory bird that dwells in Puerto Rico April thru September; It is eight inches in length and feeds on insects at sunset. It is also known in Spanish as gaspayo or capacho.
Yaboa, guanabá Black crowned Night Heron
Kolibrí, sunsún Hummingbird
Hiwaka /Amazona vittata/ Parrot
Biahaní /columba passerine/ Common Ground Dove; One of the smaller species of doves in the Greater Antilles, being six to seven inches in length with dark brown feathers. It is also known in Spanish as ‘rola’ or ‘rolita’.
Watibirí, pitirre /tyrannus dominicensis/ Grey Kingbird
Múkaro, taiba Owl; Fray Ramón Pané recorded the descriptive name of a çemí named baibrama which contains the root word –aiba- . According to José Juan Arrom -aiba- is a word related to the Tupí meaning ‘bad’. Taiba is one of the names given to the owl.
Warawao Red-tailed Hawk
Wanana /chen atlantica/ Snow Goose; The wanana is a migratory- marine bird that visits Puerto Rico during the winter months. It is also known in Spanish as ‘ganso blanco’.
Kao Species of Crow
Kurúa /phalacrocorax olivaceus/ Cormorant
Bihirita /dendroica Adelaide/ species of Warbler
Wanaho Turkey
Yaguasa /deudrocygna arboreas/ West Indian Great Blue Heron; originally this word was most likely pronounced as yawasa.
Inrirí /melanerpes portoricensis/ woodpecker
Chiriría West Indian tree duck
Tigua /colymbus dominicus dominicus/ West Indian Least Grebe; an aquatic bird; eight to fifteen inches in length that resides in fresh water lagoons; originally this word was most likely pronounced as tiwa.


Aon /a-on/ dog
Burukena /Epilabocera cubensis; Erphia gonagra/ fresh water crab that is dark brown almost black in color. They are abundant in ravines and rivers. It is edible, but not as appealing as the huey.
Güimo /gwee-mo/ a rodent; guinea pig
Hikotea /pseudemys palustris; decorata/ edible fresh water turtle whose size varies, averaging thirty centimeters.
Huey /hwey/ /Cardiosoma guanhumi/ edible land crab; they are also found in mangroves. There is another species of huey called huey ciguatero /gecarcinus lateralis/ that is poisonous.
Iwana iguana; In Karifuna iwána.
Kahaya /carcharias glaucus/ a species of shark
Kaimán crocodile
Kakata species of poisonous spider.
Kakoneta a species of shark in which a variety are found in the waters of Puerto Rico.
Kakuse, kakúy names given to the firefly in the small town of Duey in San German, Puerto Rico.
Karéy /chelonia imbricate/ species of sea turtle; the shell of the karéy has been used as a household item and in the past used in adornments and to make combs, etc.; its eggs are highly esteemed for food; they are now a protected species.
Katuan, katua land turtle
Kawama /chelonia caretta/ a species of sea turtle; its shell is less durable than that of the Karéy (another species of sea turtle) and in the recent past its eggs were more esteemed than its meat; In Kalina (mainland Carib) Kahuame, with the same meaning; they are now a protected species.
Kokolía /callinectes sp. / species of salt water crab, blue in color.
Kokuyo, kukuyo /pyrophorus luminosus/ a species of firefly; In Karifuna kóguyu.
Korí, kurí, kuriel mouse; In Karifuna kúli and in Lokono kúri; both with the same meaning.
Kuiko name given to the güimo, a rodent; guinea pig, in the North West region of Puerto Rico
kukubano /pyrophorus noctilicus/ a species of firefly
Kusí species of edible worm
Nimita name used in Kiskeya to refer to a smaller species of firefly; when seen at night it is said that they are the eyes of children that have passed on.
Siwa sea snail; In Karifuna shíwa.
Tiburón /Carcharias glaucus/ another more commonly used name for the shark .
Tinapa sardines; this word is still used today; it is of Carib origin.
Tonína dolphin; this word was recorded off the lips of Puerto Rican fisherman in the late 1980’s early 90’s.
Wabá /phrynus palmatus/ spider that closely resembles the tarantula whose bite is very painful; today it is pronounced guabá.
Wahino the runt of a litter of piglets; today it is pronounced as guahino.
Xexén /culicoides furens/ gnat; small mosquito; abundant on coastal beaches; today it is pronounced with an aspirated /h/ hehén.


Areíto dance, song; Songs and poetry recited in memory of ancestors and recalling creation myths; an areíto also celebrated births, marriages and coming of age. According to Las Casas, when pronouncing the word, emphasis falls on the letter –í.
Arike mooring cord made from yawa palm.
Baira the name for the bow used to shoot arrows.
Batea manioc trough; deep tray used for various purposes; the batea is still made in Kiskeya; In Karifuna batáya with the same meaning.
Batéy the central plaza in a town or any open ground that is in front or in back of one’s house. The batéy was also used to play a native Caribbean sport using a rubber ball. This sport is being played by various groups in Kiskeya ‘Dominican Republic’, who would like to see the revival of the game.
Behike doctor, shaman
Behuko vine; there are numerous species of behuko that can be used for medicinal purposes; the fruit of some behuko can be dried out and made into an instrument called a guiro /gwee-ro/.
Butaka rocking chair
Dita cup, dish or dipper made from dried calabash cut in half; In Karifuna rita with the same meaning.
Duho ceremonial seat
Hamaka hammock
Kanari a bowl, pot or vase made of clay.
Kanoa canoe; In Karifuna kawána and Lokono Kanoa; all with the same meaning.
Karakuri a piece of jewelry made of gold used to adorn the nose; nose-ring.
Kayuko a small-one person canoe; Today kayuko has also come to mean the trough used to hold food or water for animals. One can see how this word has by extension been applied to a trough that is a long, narrow hollow, open container resembling a small canoe.
Kotisa flip flops
Kutara, Kotara sandals; also recorded as gutara by Oviedo (page 527, Tomo I); this word is composed of Lokono kuti ‘foot’ + -ara ‘bark; skin’.
Makuto a sleeve-like woven basket with an opening on top; some having lids
Maraka gourd rattle; In Garifuna maraga.
Matuko a rustic stick that serves as a cane.
Nahe a paddle; In Karifuna néhene and in Lokono –nahàlle with the same meaning.
Nawa woman’s loin cloth; In Guajiro (an Arawak language) naáwa has the same meaning.
Tawawa earrings
Túbana this word has multiple meanings: feather; liver; house; the root of this word is –úbana and –bana. It is a common suffix in many Arawakan languages and can be heard in the Caribbean names for trees and fruits such as kóbana, kohóbana and wanábana.
Túbano cigar
Ture a low lying chair; a stool
Wairo a craft or boat with a sail, sailboat; this word was in common use in the 19th Century pronounced also as guairo. Today it is in disuse.
Wanín a medallion made from low grade gold consisting of an alloy of gold, silver and copper; it was recognized by its copper scent.
Wayo a grater; today it is pronounced ‘guayo’; it is also used as the verb guayar ‘to grate’.
Wita string, twine; today it is pronounced ‘guita’.
Yari necklace, jewelry; In Karifuna yari and in Lokono -yédi .
Yukayéke town; village


Heketí one; “Stress falls on the last syllable of the word” –Las Casas
Yamoká two; “Stress falls on the last syllable of the word” –Las Casas
Kanokúm three; “Stress falls on the last syllable of the word” –Las Casas
Yamonkóbre four; “Stress falls on the second to last syllable of the word” -Las Casas


Borikua This Taíno word is commonly used by many Puerto Ricans to refer to themselves; someone whose ancestry is from Puerto Rico; In a document dated 1518 the name Buriqua appears for a women whose other given name was Isabelica, whom under the leadership of a local leader named Kawax was one of many that labored on plantations overseen by Spaniards.
Garata a brawl
Himawa one of two words that refers to twins; today it is pronounced himagua.
Hohoto insipid, rotten or hardened; used in reference to fruits and tubers; by extension can also mean ‘rundown’ or ‘useless’ when applied to a person.
Kakona trinkets; objects of some worth to the individual such as beads, shell necklaces, stone art, etc…Today kakona is used in some parts of kiskeya to refer to one’s children.
Sanako dumb; stupid
Sanano dumb; stupid; a gullible person.
Soko short posts that hold up the floor of the house.
Soroko a person who is missing an arm or part of an arm.
Soruka an argument that turns into a fight.
Susubano a condition of frailty or feebleness in an individual caused by any illness; symptoms include sluggishness and weakness in the limbs.
Tereke any object or household item that is of little value; rendered valueless.
Motete a pile of clothes or belongings.
Ware word that refers to twins; today it is pronounced guare.
Wareto refers to fruits that grow attached or conjoined to each other; today people usually say, “Oh, look at those fruits, they are guareto!”
Wayuko originally referred to a man’s loincloth; today the word is used to refer to a worn pair of pants used mostly for farm work; presently it is pronounced guayuko.
Wanime rolled cornmeal tapered at both ends, 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1 1/8” diameter in thickness; it is wrapped in banana leaves folded at both ends and tied with cotton string; boiled in salted water.


Arrom, José Juan
2000 Estudios de Lexicología Antillana. Segunda Edición, Universidad de Puerto Rico.

Granberry, Julian and Vescelius, Gary S.
2004 Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles. The University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Hernandez Aquino, Luis
1993 Diccionario de Voces Indígenas de Puerto Rico. 3rd ed. Editorial Cultural, Río Piedras.

Nazario, Manuel Alvarez
1996 Arqueología Lingüistica: Estudios modernos dirigidos al rescate y reconstrucción del arahuaco taíno. Universidad de Puerto Rico.

Rat, J. N.
1898 The Carib Language as Now Spoken in Dominica, West Indies. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland 27:293-315.

Tejera, Emiliano
1977 Indigenismos. 2 vols. Editora de Santo Domingo, Santo Domingo

Taylor, Douglas M.
1969 A Preliminary View of Arawak Phonology. International Journal of American Linguistics 35:234-238.
1977 Languages of the West Indies. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Zayas, Alfredo y Alfonso
1931 Lexicografía Antillana: Diccionario de voces usadas por los Aborigenes de las Antillas mayores y algunas de las Menores y consideraciones acerca de su significado y de su formación. Segunda Edición, Tomo II, Habana.