The Arawak language family contains the largest number of languages in Latin America. Geographically, it spans four countries of Central America — Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua — and eight of South America — Bolivia, Guyana, French Guiana, Surinam, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Brazil (and also formerly Argentina and Paraguay).

            There are about 40 living Arawak languages. The first native American peoples encountered by Columbus — in the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico — were the Arawak-speaking Taino. Their language became extinct within a hundred years of the invasion. Spanish and many other European languages inherited a number of loans from Arawak languages. These include widely used words such as hammock, tobacco, potato, guava, and many other names for flora and fauna.

            The creation of a 'mixed' language of Arawak/Carib origin in the Lesser Antilles is one of the most interesting pieces of evidence on language history in pre-conquest times. Speakers of Iñeri, a dialect of the Arawak language now (misleadingly) called Island Carib, were conquered by Carib speakers. They developed a 'mixed' Carib/Arawak pidgin which survived until the 17th century (Hoff 1994). 'Speech of men' and 'speech of women' were distinguished in the following way. Women used morphemes and lexemes of Arawak origin, while men used lexical items of Carib origin and grammatical morphemes mostly of Arawak origin. The pidgin coexisted with Carib used by men and Iñeri used by women and children; it belonged to both parties and served as a bridge between them. This diglossia gradually died out with the spread of competence in Island Carib among both men and women. As a result, Island Carib, an Arawak language, underwent strong lexical and, possibly, grammatical influence from Carib.

            The languages in areas settled by the European invaders soon became extinct. Those on the north coast of South America perished first, before 1700. When the search for gold and rubber extended up the Amazon and its tributary the Rio Negro, further languages succumbed, from the 18th century up until the present day. Sometimes the Indians retaliated, attacking settlements and missions; but the invaders always returned. Indian rebellions often provoked forced migrations which sometimes ended up creating a new dialect or even a language. For instance, in 1797 the British authorities removed the rebellious inhabitants of St. Vincent (an island in the Lesser Antilles) to Belize on the mainland. These were racially a mixture of black slaves and Indians, who spoke Island Carib. This resulted in the creation of a new dialect of Island Carib — known as Central American Island Carib, Kariff, Black Carib or Garifuna — which by the 20th century had developed into a separate language, now spoken in Central America (Taylor 1977).

            At present, the overwhelming majority of Arawak languages are endangered. Even in the few communities with over 1,000 speakers, a national language (Portuguese or Spanish) or a local lingua franca (Lingua Geral Amazônica, Quechua or Tucano) is gradually gaining ground among younger people. The few healthy Arawak languages are Guajiro in Venezuela and Colombia (estimates vary from 60,000 to 300,000 speakers) and the Campa languages (total estimate 40-50,000), one of the largest indigenous groups in Peru.

            Most of the materials on Arawak languages collected during the second half of the 20th century are by missionary linguists. Their quality and quantity varies. For only three or four languages is a full description available.

            The genetic unity of Arawak languages was first recognized by Father Gilij as early as 1783. The recognition of the family was based on a comparison of pronominal cross-referencing prefixes in Maipure, a now extinct language from the Orinoco Valley, and in Moxo from Bolivia. Gilij named the family Maipure. Later, it was 'renamed' Arawak by Daniel Brinton after one of the most important languages of the family, Arawak (or Lokono), spoken in the Guianas. This name gained wide acceptance during the following decades. The majority of native South American scholars use the name Arawak (Aruák) to refer to the group of unquestionably related languages easily recognizable by pronominal prefixes such as nu- or ta- 'first person singular', (p)i- 'second person singular', prefix ka- meaning 'have' and negator ma-. A number of scholars, mainly North Americans, prefer to use the term Arawak(-an) to refer to a much more doubtful higher-level grouping, and reserve the term Maipuran (or Maipurean) for the group of undoubtedly related languages which are claimed to be one branch of 'Arawakan' (see Payne 1991). Here I follow the South American practice and use the name Arawak for the family of definitely related languages.

            The limits of the family were established by the early 20th century. Problems still exist concerning internal genetic relationships within the family and possible genetic relationships with other groups. Reconstruction, internal classification and subgrouping of Arawak languages remains a matter of debate; further detailed work is needed on both the descriptive and comparative fronts.

            The putative studies of 'Arawakan' by Ester Matteson, G. Kingsley Noble and others are deeply flawed. Unfortunately, these have been adopted as the standard reference for the classification of Arawak languages, especially among some anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists, influencing ideas on a putative proto-home and migration routes for 'proto-Arawakan' — see the criticism in Tovar and Tovar (1984), Dixon and Aikhenvald (1999: 12-15) and Aikhenvald (1999a).

            Little is known about a proto-home for the Arawak family. The linguistic argument in favour of an Arawak proto-home located between the Rio Negro and the Orinoco rivers —or on the Upper Amazon — is based on the fact that there is a higher concentration of structurally divergent languages found in this region. This area has also been suggested as one of the places where agriculture developed. This is highly suggestive and corroborated by a few mythical traditions of northern origin by Arawak-speaking peoples south of the Amazon. The origin myths of the Tariana, in northwest Amazonia, suggest that they could have come from the north coast of South America.

            Arawak languages are complicated in many ways. Words can be differentiated by stress in some languages, such as Baure and Waurá (south of Amazonas), and Tariana, Achagua and Warekena (north of Amazonas). At least two have tones —Terêna in the South, and Resígaro spoken in the far northeast of Peru.

            Each Arawak language has a few prefixes and numerous suffixes. Prefixes are typically monosyllabic, while suffixes can consist of one or more syllables. Roots usually contain two syllables. Prefixes are rather uniform across the family, while suffixes are not. What is a free morpheme in one language can be a grammatical marker in another language; for instance, postpositions become causative markers; and nouns become classifiers. An Apurina noun maka means 'clothing' — this is where the word for hammock comes from. In Baniwa of Içana, -maka is a classifier for stretchable thin extended objects, e.g. tsaia 'skirt' or dzawiya 'jaguar's skin', as in apa-maka (one-classifier:clothing) 'one piece of clothing'.

            Most grammatical categories in Arawak languages are verbal. Cases to mark subjects and objects are atypical. Tariana, spoken in northwest Brazil, has developed cases for core grammatical relations to match the pattern in nearby Tucanoan languages (Aikhenvald 1999b).

            Arawak languages spoken south of the Amazon ('South Arawak') have a more complex predicate structure than those north of the Amazon ('North Arawak'). South Arawak languages such as Amuesha or Campa have up to thirty suffix positions. North Arawak languages such as Tariana or Palikur have not more than a dozen. Suffixes express meanings realized by independent words in familiar Indo-European languages, e.g. 'be about to do something', 'want to do something', 'do late at night', 'do early in the morning', 'do all along the way', 'in vain', 'each other'.

            Verbs are typically divided into transitive (e.g. 'hit'), active intransitive (e.g. 'jump') and stative intransitive (e.g. 'be cold'). All Arawak languages share pronominal affixes and personal pronouns. Pronominal suffixes refer to subjects of stative verbs and direct objects. Prefixes are used for subjects of transitive verbs and of intransitive active verbs, and for possessors. That is, most Arawak languages are of active-stative type. For instance, in Baniwa one says nu-kapa 'I see' and nu-watsa 'I jump', but nu-kapa-ni 'I see him' and hape-ni 'he is cold' (nu- refers to 'I' and -ni to 'him'). And 'my hand' is nu-kapi.

            Some languages have lost the pronominal suffixes (and with it the morphological basis for an active-stative system); these include Yawalapiti (Xingú area, Brazil) and Chamicuro (Peru) to the south of the Amazon, and Bare, Resígaro, Maipure and Tariana, to the north. The form of the first person pronoun is ta- in the Caribbean (Lokono, Guajiro, Añun, Taino) and nu- in other languages. This is the basis for classification of Arawak languages into Nu-Arawak and Ta-Arawak.

            Proto-Arawak must have had an unusual system of four persons: first, second, third, and impersonal. The forms of prefixes and suffixes reconstructed for proto-Arawak are given in Table 1.


Table 1. Pronominal prefixes and suffixes in proto-Arawak










nu- or ta-


-na, -te








ri--, i-


-ri, -i



thu-, ru-


-thu, -ru, -u







            Most Arawak languages distinguish two genders — masculine and feminine — in cross-referencing affixes, in personal pronouns, in demonstratives and in nominalizations, e.g. Palikur amepi-yo- 'thief (woman)', amepi-ye 'thief (man)', Tariana nu-phe-ri 'my elder brother', nu-phe-ru 'my elder sister'. No genders are distinguished in the plural. The markers go back to proto-Arawak third person singular suffixes and prefixes: feminine (r)u, masculine (r)i. Some languages also have complicated systems of classifiers — these characterize the noun in terms of its shape, size and function (Aikhenvald 1999a). For instance, Tariana and Baniwa of Içana have over 40 classifiers which appear on numerals, adjectives, verbs and in possessive constructions. Palikur has over a dozen classifiers which have different semantics and form depending on whether they are used on numerals, verbs or on adpositions (Aikhenvald and Green 1998). Pronominal genders have been lost from some languages, e.g. Terêna, Amuesha, Chamicuro, Pareci, Waurá (south of the Amazon) and Bahwana (north of the Amazon).

            All Arawak languages distinguish singular and plural. Plural is only obligatory with human nouns. Plural markers are *-na/-ni 'animate/human plural', *-pe 'inanimate/animate non-human plural'. Dual number is atypical. In Resígaro, markers of dual were borrowed from the neighbouring Bora-Witoto languages.

            Throughout the Arawak language family, nouns divide into those which must have a possessor (inalienably possessed) and those which do not have to have a possessor (alienably possessed). Inalienably possessed nouns are body parts, kinship terms and a few others, e.g. 'house' and 'name'. Inalienably possessed nouns have an 'unpossessed' form marked with a reflex of the suffix *-<i or *-hV, e.g. Pareci no-tiho 'my face', tiho-ti '(someone's) face'; Baniwa nu-hwida 'my head', i-hwida-†i (indefinite-head-non.possessed) 'someone's head'. Alienably possessed nouns take one of the suffixes  *‑ne/ni, *-te, *-re, *-e (Payne 1991: 378), or *-na when possessed, e.g. Baniwa nu-<inu-ni (1sg-dog-possessive) 'my dog'.

            The overwhelming majority of Arawak languages have a negative prefix ma- and its positive counterpart, prefix ka-, e.g. Piro ka-yhi (attributive-tooth) 'having teeth', ma-yhi (negative-tooth) 'toothless'; Bare ka-witi-w (attributive-eye-feminine) 'a woman with good eyes', ma-witi-w 'a woman with bad eyes; a blind woman'.

            The common Arawak lexicon (cf. Payne 1991) consists mostly of nouns. There are quite a few body parts, fauna, flora, and artefacts. Only a few verbs can be reconstructed, e.g. *kau 'arrive', *pˆ(da) 'sweep', *po 'give', *(i)ya 'cry', *kama 'be sick, die'; *itha 'drink'. Most languages have just the numbers 'one' (proto-Arawak *pa-; also meaning 'someone, another') and 'two' (proto-Arawak *(a)pi and *yama). A preliminary reconstruction is in Payne (1991). An up-to-date  overview of the family is in Aikhenvald (1999a), (2001), and an overview of the proto-language is in Aikhenvald (2002).



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