The Spanish conquest in the Caribbean almost erased the Taíno presence in the region, through extermination by killing, enslavement and disease; however, its language and cultural roots have withstood the test of time.
According to experts, the Taíno language has the greatest presence in Spanish of all the dialects of the Americas before 1492.
Bartolomé de las Casas said that the “language of the Indians” was “the most elegant and copious of words, and the sweetest in sounds”.
What the historian referred to in his chronicles from America was in fact the Taíno language, the first native language of the continent with which the Spaniards met when they arrived in 1492.
It was in Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and then in Cuba, where the European conquerors came across this new linguistic reality that, would end up deeply marking their own language.
“Being the first language they came into contact with, it is the one that leaves the biggest mark in general Spanish, becoming the oldest and most abundant in our language,” said María José Rincón, a member of the Academia Dominicana de la Lengua.
With “general Spanish” the expert refers to the language that is spoken in common in all the Spanish-speaking countries, since, as she recognizes, the influence of other indigenous languages in specific countries such as the case of Nahuatl in Mexico is greater.
However, the conquerors adopted Taíno words to name new realities they did not know – especially related to nature – and took them on their subsequent journeys through other territories.
This caused many countries of continental America to abandon even their own indigenisms to adopt Taino words carried by the Spanish from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Cuba, among others.
According to Rincon, “30% of the indigenisms collected in the chronicles of the Indies is of Taino origin,” which is “very much” considering that La Española was only the gateway to America for the Spanish, who ended up assimilating to the Taino people who survived European diseases or the slave trade.
Words that perhaps you did not know were of taíno origin:
According to the lexicographer, the Dictionary of the Spanish language today collects some 70 words of Taino origin. But in the Lexicographical Treasury of the Spanish of Puerto Rico there are more than 800.
Barbecue: In Taíno, it was used to refer to the framework that supports a climbing plant or a raised framework of the soil where the food is placed so as not to be reached by the animals.
From there, it moved in to Spanish and then to other languages such as English or French (barbecue), changing its meaning to that of the grill used for roasting or the meat roast itself.
In countries such as the Dominican Republic, the original Taíno meaning for “barbecue” was maintained, so to refer to the other reality they use “parrillada” or “barbecue” (BBQ), as in English.
That is to say, that this term was taken by foreign languages to finally return to the Caribbean, where the English word was adopted even though its origin was Taíno. It’s what experts call “a boomerang word.”
And do not forget that in Cuba, they also use “barbacoa” with ingenuity to call a wooden or concrete platform used to divide the height of a room and thus gain another space.
Canoe: The boat carved in one piece from the trunk of a single tree, has the honor of being the oldest Americanism to be officially recognized in the Spanish language.
Thus, it was the first American indigenous word reflected in a Spanish dictionary, specifically in the first “Vocabulary Spanish-Latin” by Antonio de Nebrija published in 1494 or 1495.
That is to say, that there are Taíno words that became so important for our language that very shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in America in 1492, it had to be “officialized” in a language manual. They also entered later into English and French.
In the first Indian chronicles, however, the Spaniards had to add an explanation when using it to make sure that in their country they would understand: “they travel in canoes or rafts”, which was the word of Arabic origin used then to name similar vessels and that today is practically in disuse.
Hammock: It is one of many words that the Spaniards had to adopt from the Taino to name a reality that was unknown to them until then: that kind of “hanging bed where the Indians slept” that they met in America.
Since the Taíno was not a written language, the Spaniards reflected these words in their chronicles in the way that they seemed to hear them from the mouths of the natives.
For example, with many of the “h” that they added to these new words they tried to reflect a soft aspirated pronunciation ([h]), something similar to the “h” of English, which would be as the Taínos said it.
Piragua: There are words that the taínos gave to the Spanish and became popular in most Spanish-speaking countries but, interestingly enough, they did not remain in the Caribbean area in which they were born.
This is the case of the word “piragua”, the taino word for a long and narrow vessel, but in Puerto Rico it is used to refer to an ice confection with syrup.
Papaya: Or there is also the case of “papaya”, the fruit that is called “milky” in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or “mamón” in Paraguay, among other different names and countries.
But Spaniards did not always adopt Taíno words to call the new realities they discovered in America – sometimes they used existing words in their language if they found any similarity.
This is what happened when they discovered the tropical pineapple, which they saw had some resemblance to the pine fruit they already knew and therefore decided to give another meaning to that same word.
Ají: Some Taíno words extended from the Caribbean to more Spanish-speaking countries but did not impose themselves on other indigenous words that already existed in those places to refer to the same reality.
This is the case of “ají”, which is still used in South America and the Caribbean (and Cuba) in the same way that the “chilli” of Nahuatl origin remained in Mexico and Central America (or “pepper” in Spain).
Or the “peanut” of Taíno origin, but which also did not oust the “peanut” (or “peanut”) Nahuatl that is still used in Mexico, Spain and part of Central America.
Guava: Or also the “guayaba“, which, in addition to being the name of a fruit, is synonymous with “lying” in many Latin American countries and has even mutated into “guayabera“, that classic light shirt that is so common in Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean , Brazil and even the Canary Islands in Spain.
Cohiba: Finally, you probably know the famous cigar brand Cohiba, but do you know where it got its name from?
The truth is that although this trademark was born in Cuba in the 60s, its name is much older.
When the Spaniards arrived on the island, they found that their Taíno residents smoked rolled tobacco leaves.
They called it cohiba.
But there are many other words of Taíno origin: corn, cassava, hurricane, caiman, ceiba, iguana, shark, bohio (rural Cuban house) … not to mention those that are only used in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean.
Do you know any other used in Cuba that is not on this list?