Caribbean mother tongues | Backstory

Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira explores the more than 70 languages (many of them Creole or Indigenous) we speak and sign in the Caribbean, and why valuing and preserving them is so crucial

  • Multi-lingual welcome signs in Curaçao. Photo by Studio Barcelona/
  • Creole Day in St Lucia. Photo courtesy St Lucia Tourism Authority
  • Kalinago musicians perform at Kalinago Week in Dominica. Photo courtesy Discover Dominica

The Caribbean has been typically divided up along the lines of Dutch, English, French and Spanish — with some overlap among these languages, as in Belize, Puerto Rico and the “ABC” and “SSS” islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten and Saba) … just because languages don’t respect borders.

These colonial languages have long held official status and sway — in law, education and other official domains. But the two Caribbean-born languages of Papiamentu/Papiamento and Haitian Kreyòl are often forgotten in the official line-up, still struggling for full respect and recognition in the lands of their birth.

With some 45 million people, the Caribbean is far more multilingual than meets the official eye. We can proudly lay claim to great sociolinguistic diversity that speaks to our history, our present and our future.

Our 70 plus languages include 23 Amerindian languages from five language families; four official European languages; one African language; 23 Creole languages (possibly more); over 10 sign languages; and 10 others (including religious, trade, and heritage languages of different origins).

Some are finally on their way to becoming formally and socially recognised in their own nations.

To put the significance of this in context, the Americas — with some 1,000 languages — is a region that in the last few centuries has simultaneously suffered heavy language loss and witnessed the birth of new languages, especially in the Caribbean.

Of the 55 separate political entities across North and South America, 32 are in the Caribbean (over 50%) — in both the island archipelago and on the continental mainland. The Greater Caribbean is defined as including Belize, French Guiana and Guyana, plus Venezuela and Colombia, and nearly all Central American countries have Caribbean coastlines, linkages, and languages — as do parts of North America.

So linguistically speaking, not all Caribbean territories easily fit into neat boxes. Six are officially bilingual, and even trilingual. Even the 26 de jure monolingual territories are de facto bilingual and multilingual.

There are five multilingual Dutch-official entities, and all of them except Suriname (which has the most indigenous Creole languages) officially recognise more than one language. Of the 21 English-official territories, there are two officially bilingual states. Among the four French-official areas, Haiti stands out as being both Kreyòl-official and French-official, and there are three Spanish-official territories (including one officially bilingual country and others that use Spanish).

Even though English claims the greatest number of political entities, most are in the Lesser Antilles. Spanish, meanwhile, is spoken by over 26 million Caribbean people, mainly in the Greater Antilles, and is the official language that claims the most speakers across the entire Caribbean — not English.

And it is Kreyòl — together with its sister varieties categorised under the umbrella of Caribbean/Antillean French Creole — that is actually the number two language of the Caribbean. It’s spoken by 13 million people — over 11 million in Haiti alone (not to mention the diaspora) — and more than seven other Caribbean territories.

By way of comparison, the European Union has 24 official languages, 15 (or 63%) of which belong to nations with populations under 11 million people.

For a long time, Caribbean languages have been considered inappropriate for official use. They’ve been regularly compared negatively with European languages, and are often called “dialects”, “broken”, or other patronising descriptors.

Most Caribbean languages, especially Creole languages and sign languages (and their users), have had to face negative language attitudes and lack of respect — not to mention outright discrimination and stereotyping (except perhaps in the arts, like song, theatre, and some literary works).

Knowing the history of the now much respected European languages offers much needed perspective. English itself — now a world language at the top end of the ladder of respect — held low status vis-à-vis French for centuries until it finally came into its own in education, religion and politics (though French and Latin-based vocabulary still dominate in these domains to this day).

But some overdue and exciting things are happening in the Caribbean. The Charter on Language Policy & Language Rights in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean (Kingston 2011) approaches language as a human rights issue; speaks to every area of human existence where language matters; seeks to end discrimination against the users of Caribbean languages; and provides a framework for language planning and language policy-making at every level — whether institutional or national or regional.

In the Creole-speaking Caribbean, Aruba, Curaçao, and the Caribbean Netherlands have long been working to protect, promote and privilege the position of Papiamento and Papiamentu, while Jamaica and St Lucia have been forging ahead with the help of linguistics scholars.

The latter has been developing a national policy promoting bilingualism — St Lucian French Creole (Kwéyòl) and English — and making Kwéyòl official. Jamaica has been debating and discussing the same for Jamaican Creole (Patwa) and English, and Trinidad & Tobago also has a draft language education policy (2010).

Interestingly, the pandemic helped to change public perception of marginalised languages and their users, with translations of COVID-19 information into thousands of languages worldwide and right here in the Caribbean, particularly in Guyana and Jamaica.

All languages are equally and inherently worthy of respect and study. Both linguistically and sociolinguistically, the Caribbean is, in fact, a living laboratory for old words and new for colonial languages and Creole languages.

In this UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–32), it is time for the Caribbean to embrace its wealth of linguistic diversity, starting at home — from the cradle to the university and beyond.

Many territories celebrate international language days, including International Mother Language Day (21 February); International Day of Sign Languages (23 September); and International Creole Day (28 February), started in St Lucia. All help raise awareness of languages and human rights issues — including the particular challenge facing refugees and forced migrants, who need to learn both official and vernacular languages (the latter too often forgotten).

And yet, issues of inequality and shame persist, rooted in attitudes and perspectives, not the intrinsic worth of a particular language, and in turn shaped by money, politics and power — more specifically, the socioeconomic powerlessness of the speakers, past and present. Language status reflects people’s status.

How does a language become high status? Historically, through conquest, colonisation, and campaigning.

Among the campaigners of our times are Caribbean universities and other institutions working towards language recognition, rights, and redemption. These include The University of the West Indies, the University of Guyana, the Universidad de Puerto Rico, the Université des Antilles, and the Université de Guyane, with linguistics departments and organisations like the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (1972), the Folk Research Centre (1973), Groupe d’Études et de Recherches en Espace Créolophone et Francophone (1975), Caribbean Yard Campus (2014), and more.

Further afield, some 25 universities in North America and Europe have also been offering courses and programmes on (if not in) Haitian Kreyòl and Jamaican Creole in particular (Caribbean music and festivals are huge drawing cards).

Caribbean people love our words (and our dictionaries) — now it’s time to love and value more, to take pride in every aspect of our people, and our languages, regardless of painful histories and of humble beginnings.

Caribbean languages are at the heart of intangible linguo-cultural heritage that should be protected before the users of these languages continue to suffer and/or disappear. Two Caribbean communities and their languages and cultures are on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity — namely the Garifuna in four countries and Maroons in Jamaica.

Like ecological loss, language and culture loss are often irreparable. Like a balanced ecology where all species should be protected where possible, all languages should be treated equally and documented for posterity. Language movements all over the world also have seen powerful changes to psyches and societies when languages of pupils are respected and used.

Our languages offer us insight into who we are as a people today — how we think, function and see the world, and yes, where we came from. All of our languages are at the very heart of our identity.

So the next Caribbean destination (continental or archipelago) you visit, pay close attention and you’ll hear and see our history and our heartbeat in the languages that surround you.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.