The Garifuna Language

History of Garifuna Language

Garifuna is an Amerindian langauge of the Arawak family, spoken by people that are mostly African-American. The Garifuna language was spoken on St. Vincent Island in the Lesser Antilles before the Garinagu were deported from there to Roatan Island, Honduras. Before being deported, they mixed with escaped or captured African slaves. At present the language is spoken in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, and it was formerly spoken in Nicaragua. In all, the language is now in peril but there are still some 90,000 speakers.

It is rich in tales, which served as an activity during wakes and large gatherings. Nowadays, because the language is being eroded the story-telling art is being lost at the same time. There is a strong link between the Garifuna language and the songs and dances which are associated with them. The melodies bring together African and Amerindian elements and the texts tell the history and traditional knowledge of the Garifuna, such as cassava-growing, fishing, canoe-building and the construction of baked mud houses.

One distinction of the Garifuna language is that male words are different from female words. In a conversation between a male and female they use different words to refer to the same thing.

Another unique thing about the Garifuna language is that it is spoken across borders of countries some of which do not have the same first language [e.g. Belize (English) and Honduras (Spanish)].

Countries and Regions of the Garifuna

The Garifuna alphabet (below tables) is used to comprise the following words, which vary by country.

In English Language 

Words in Garifuna Language 

Central America 

Lamidan Meriga 









United States 


In Belize

In Belize, an English-speaking state in Central America, there were 12.000 Garifuna speakers according to the 1991 census. The language is losing ground to English and English Creole. In Belize, Hopkins is the only Garifuna village where the young still learn and speak Garifuna.

English Language 

Words in Garifuna Language 







Monkey River 


Punta Gorda 


Seine Bight 

Seni Baidi 

Stann Creek 


In Guatemala

In Guatemala, the Garifuna live in the Atlantic Coast. It is one of the two non-Maya indigenous language of this State. There were some 16.000 speakers in 1990.

Spanish Language 

Words in Garifuna Language 





Livingston [across the Rio Dulce] 


Puerto Barrios 


Puerto Barrios [across the Bay] 




In Honduras

It is in Honduras, the first territory where they settled after being deported from their homeland, that most Garifuna live, some 70,000 people along the Atlantic Coast. Language shift towards Spanish is taking place there also.

Spanish Language 

Words in Garifuna Language 



Baja Mar 




Barra Chapagua 


Barra de Aguán 

Lawan Wairiti 

Buena Vista 

Buiti Arihini 

Cayo Venado 

Cayo Venado 



Colonial of Trujillo 








La Ensenada 






Monte Pobre 

Monte Pobre 

Nueva Armenia 


Nuevo Go 


Puerto Castilla 


Puerto Cortés 


Rio Tinto 




Saluda Lis-Lis 

Salau / Salado 

Sambo Creek 


San Antonio 


San Juan 


San Pedro 




Santa Fe 


Santa Rosa de Aguán 

Lauba Lawan 









Triunfo de la Cruz 

Turaunpu / Dufigati 


Duruwiyu / Diruwiu 

In Nicaragua

There are also a few communities in Nicaragua but they no longer speak Garifuna. The ethnic Garifuna of Nicaragua number some 1,500 people they speak an English Creole, and Spanish as a second language.

Spanish Language 

Words in Garifuna Language 



Justo Point 

Husto Point 


La Fe 



Garifuna Language Class

The Garifuna Alphabet

The Garifuna Community knows the importance of keeping alive their native language. They have produced this LANGUAGE POLICY STATEMENT OF THE GARIFUNA NATION in an effort to encourage all communities to promote the preservation and development of the Garifuna Language.


      We, the Garifuna people, although living within the borders of various countries (including but not limited to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Vincent, and the United States), represent a single, united ethnic community known as the Garifuna Nation. Our language is the Garifuna language. This language has a dictionary, a working orthography, and a corpus of literature and descriptive grammatical work.

      The Garifuna people recognize the natural and inherent interconnectedness of language and culture and that our language is the primary  vehicle for the transmission of our culture. We believe that our survival  depends on both the preservation of our traditional language and on social and economic development. Therefore, language policies and goals described here also impact and are intimately connected with our economic development and cultural survival.

      As an indigenous people, the Garifuna Nation has basic rights to autonomy and self-determination, and the right to maintain and preserve Garifuna language and culture. Further, the Garifuna Nation recognizes the right of the Garifuna communities and member organizations in each country to establish and implement local level language policies and development initiatives, and expects these rights to be guaranteed by local governments, as described by the United Nations Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

     We, the Garifuna Nation, declare that our ancestral language is Garifuna, and that Garifuna is the language of the Garifuna Nation, regardless of the level of individual competence.


In order to ensure the survival of the Garifuna language, the Garifuna Nation adopts the following language maintenance policies. In the process, we expect recognition of the Garifuna language by the governments of Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

These policies are reflected in the thrust of the Garifuna National Language Program, and will result in the formation and execution of language preservation projects and initiatives at all levels within the Garifuna Nation. The Garifuna Nation encourages its various communities to develop local level language maintenance strategies which are tailored to the unique circumstances and needs of the given community.

Lexical expansion
Our Garifuna language is a modern language capable of expressing the complete range of human communicative intentions. Our language is also capable of lexical expansion into contemporary technical and specialized semantic fields, including mathematics, information technology, economics, politics, science, etc. We hereby mandate the formation of a special international Garifuna committee to develop and determine appropriate new vocabulary so that Garinagu may speak on any subject without resorting to the use of foreign lexemes. This committee will represent Garinagu from all the various geographic regions, and will meet on a regular basis in an on-going process of development of new vocabulary where needed.

Corpus planning
The Garifuna Nation is committed to the finalization and standardization of a Garifuna orthography which is acceptable to all speakers. Much orthographic work has already been accomplished, and the remaining linguistic and stylistic questions will be resolved and a standardized Garifuna orthography adopted in the near future.

The Garifuna Nation also mandates the training of teachers and other interested and appropriate individuals in the use of the new Garifuna orthography (reading and writing), in order to promote and promulgate the production of literature, plays, videos, and other cultural materials in Garifuna. Access to publication will also be secured for all regions. We believe that the acquisition of  literacy in the ancestral language will expand the domains of use of the Garifuna language, and will allow contemporary Garinagu the maximum potential for creative expression in their language.

Language acquisition and use
The Garifuna Nation recognizes that the single most important factor in the survival of our language is its transmission to the children. Our goal is for all Garifuna children to learn the ancestral language in the natural way, in the home, and we call on Garifuna parents to reclaim Garifuna as the language of the home.

For Garifuna parents whose competence in the language is imperfect, local programs to help parents improve their mastery of Garifuna should be implemented. 

The Garifuna Nation recognizes the need for greater opportunities to practice and use the ancestral language, and calls for the establishment of fora at all levels promoting use of the language. In addition, we realize that elder speakers are a valuable linguistic resource, and we encourage the consultation of elder speakers and their involvement with language learners. In turn, elder speakers should be encouraging and supportive of language learners.


Resources and funding
In order to put into action Garifuna language maintenance, preservation, and revitalization efforts, we require resources, both human and monetary. The Garifuna Nation welcomes all persons seriously interested in participating in or contributing to the Garifuna National Language Program. In addition, grant writing skills will be developed at various levels within the Garifuna Nation in order to secure necessary funds for the enactment of our goals. 

Linguistic documentation
The Garifuna Nation is committed to the development of a comprehensive grammatical description of our language which can be adapted for use in the classroom, facilitating the formal instruction of our children in Garifuna.

In general, Garifuna people welcome the interest of linguists in our unique language. We expect, however, a high degree of cultural sensitivity and responsibility. In addition, we require copies of any work produced which deals with our language, and especially appreciate materials and other work which may also be utilized in our language preservation and revitalization efforts.

The Garifuna Nation expects recognition of the Garifuna language by the governments of Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.


Through this statement, the Garifuna Nation makes known our intention to exercise greater control over the schools in our communities and over the education of our children, rights guaranteed to us in the United Nations Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as other national and regional agreements and legislation. 
The Garifuna Nation requires of national and local governments not only recognition of the legal right to maintain our language, but implementation of the effective right to maintain our language through the allocation of resources, personnel, funds and equipment.

Schools in all Garifuna communities will institute a curriculum teaching the history and culture of the Garifuna people, including the story of the origin of the Garinagu and the Garifuna language, aspects of Garifuna cosmology, traditional Garifuna foods, and Garifuna songs and dance.

The Garifuna Nation also expects to act on our right to educate our children in our traditional Garifuna language, through programs designed to meet the educational, linguistic, and cultural preservation needs and goals of each individual Garifuna community within the Garifuna Nation. As an indigenous people, the Garifuna Nation reserves the right for our children to be educated in their ancestral language as a first or second language.

In keeping with the historical Garifuna tradition of academic excellence, the Garifuna Nation expects for our children an education which is culturally sensitive and linguistically responsible, and also prepares our children for the wider social context. We assert that our children are fully capable of developing a high level of mastery in both their ancestral language and the national language, and expect the use of Garifuna as a medium of instruction to increase student success and performance, increase student awareness and knowledge of their culture and history, and enhance educational opportunity; in addition, we believe that the inclusion of our language and culture in the school program in our communities will reaffirm traditional Garifuna  values  and pride in each of the nation states of which we are a part.  

In addition to the use of our ancestral language in the formal education of our children, the Garifuna Nation also calls for the initiation of Garifuna language instruction at all levels for any and all interested persons. These are to include courses of instruction for non-speakers of the   language, as well as courses for Garifuna speakers who wish to acquire literacy in the language.



To facilitate and encourage the development and implementation of programs and projects with a view to ensuring the preservation, promotion, development and wider utilization of the Garifuna language.


1) To facilitate the development of the Garifuna language.
2) To standardize the orthography of the Garifuna language.
3) To facilitate the publication of literature including language learning and teaching materials.
4) To facilitate the acquisition of Garifuna language skills.
5) To provide fora that promote the use of Garifuna language skills.


Expected Results

1. Language Development
 The lexicon is expanded.
 There is an international mechanism in place for the development of new words and its authority is recognized and accepted in the entire Garifuna Nation.
 There is a mechanism for promulgating the agreements emerging from the language development efforts.
 The Garifuna language is used in domains for which it is currently inadequate.

2. A Standardized Orthography
 Orthographic agreements negotiated by influential persons from the participating countries and published and accepted everywhere.
 An orthographic guide is published and widely disseminated.

3. The Acquisition of Garifuna Language Skills
 Materials for teaching and learning Garifuna available
 A cadre of persons available in each participating country to deliver classes Words in Garifuna Language and Culture.
 Schools participate effectively in the transmission of Garifuna language and cultural skills.
  Programs in place in each country to encourage and facilitate the acquisition and use of Garifuna language skills.
 Garifuna households are supportive environments for Garifuna language learning.

4. The Publication of Literature in Garifuna
 Publishing capability developed by at least one Garifuna organization in each country.
 Assistance available to writers in Garifuna to improve their work and to get it published.
 Writers are recognized and international awards given for outstanding achievement in writing in Garifuna.
 Distribution network in place to market and make published works available in each of our  countries.

5.  Fora Promoting the Use of Garifuna
 Garifuna established as the primary language used in Garifuna sponsored events.
 Periodic contests are held that require competence Words in Garifuna Language and culture.

6.Secure Financial Resources
 Local sources of financial and other resources identified and commitments secured.
 Financial support secured from external sources.

With continued dedication, the Garifuna people are certain to obtain their goals and keep the Garifuna language alive and well for the future generations.