Languages of the Caribbean

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Not to be confused with Cariban languages.
Map showing the four language families represented in the Caribbean.

The languages of the Caribbean reflect the region's diverse history and culture. There are six official languages spoken in the Caribbean. The six languages are:

However, there are also number of creoles and local patois. Dozens of the creole languages of the Caribbean are widely used informally among the general population. There are also a few additional smaller indigenous languages. Many of the indigenous languages have become extinct or are dying out.

At odds with the ever growing desire for a single Caribbean community,[1] the linguistic diversity of a few Caribbean islands has made language policy an issue in the post-colonial era. In recent years, Caribbean islands have become aware of a linguistic inheritance of sorts. However, language policies being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.

Language groups[edit]

Most languages spoken in the Caribbean are either European languages (namely English, Spanish, French and Dutch) or European language-based creoles.

English is the first or second language in most Caribbean islands and is also the unofficial "language of tourism", the dominant industry in the Caribbean region. In the Caribbean, the official language is usually determined by whichever colonial power (England, Spain, France, or the Netherlands) held sway over the island first or longest.

English language[edit]

Main article: Caribbean English

The first permanent English colonies were founded at Saint Kitts (1624) and Barbados (1627). The English language is the third most established throughout the Caribbean; however, due to the relatively small populations of the English-speaking territories, only 14%[2] of West Indians are English speakers. English is the official language of about 18 Caribbean territories inhabited by about 6 million people, though most inhabitants of these islands may more properly be described as speaking English creoles rather than local varieties of standard English.

Spanish language[edit]

The Caribbean English speakers are outnumbered by Spanish speakers by a ratio of about four to one due to the high densities of populations on the larger, Spanish-speaking, islands; some 64% of West Indians speak Spanish.[citation needed] The islands that are included in this group are Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and some tiny islands off Central and South America.

French language[edit]

About one quarter of West Indians speak French. Islands where the language is commonly used (sometimes in combination with a French-based creole) include Guadeloupe and Martinique, both of which are overseas departments of France; Saint Barthélemy and the French portion of Saint Martin, both of which are overseas collectivities of France; the independent nation of Haiti (where both French and Haitian Creole are official languages);[3][4] and the independent nations of Dominica and Saint Lucia, which are both officially English-speaking but where the French-based Antillean Creole is widely used, and French to a lesser degree.

Dutch language[edit]

Dutch is an official language of the Caribbean islands that remain under Dutch sovereignty. However, Dutch is not the dominant language on these islands. On the islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, a Spanish-Portuguese based creole known as Papiamento is predominant, while in Sint Maarten, Saba and Sint Eustatius, English, as well as a local English creole, are spoken. A Dutch creole known as Negerhollands was spoken in the former Danish West Indian islands of Saint Thomas and Saint John, but is now extinct. Its last native speaker died in 1987.[5]

Other languages[edit]

Indigenous languages[edit]

Several languages spoken in the Caribbean belong to language groups concentrated or originating in the mainland countries bordering on the Caribbean: Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.

Many indigenous languages (actually associated with the mainland Caribbean rather than the islands) have been added to the list of endangered languages—for example, Arawak languages (Shebayo, Igñeri, Lokono, Garifuna of St. Vincent, and the one now labeled Taíno by scholars, once spoken in the Greater Antilles), Caribbean (Nepuyo and Yao), Taruma, Atorada, Warrau, Arecuna, Akawaio and Patamona. These languages are still spoken there by a few people.[6][7]

Creole languages[edit]

Creoles are contact languages usually spoken in rather isolated colonies, the vocabulary of which is mainly taken from a European language (the lexifier).[8] Creoles generally have no initial or final consonant clusters but have a simple syllable structure which consists of alternating consonants and vowels (e.g. "CVCV").[9]

A substantial proportion of the world's creole languages are to be found in the Caribbean and Africa, due partly to their multilingualism and their colonial past. The lexifiers of most of the Caribbean creoles and patois are languages of Indo-European colonizers of era. Creole languages continue to evolve in the direction of European colonial languages to which they are related, so that decreolization occurs and a post-creole continuum arises. For example, the Jamaican sociolinguistic situation has often been described in terms of this continuum.[10] Papiamento, spoken on the so-called 'ABC' islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao), shows traces of both indigenous languages and Spanish,[11] Portuguese, and Dutch lexicons. Haitian Creole, though far from being a standardised language, was recognized as Haiti's official language in 1961).

In Jamaica, though generally an English speaking island, a patois, often called "patois/patwa" drawing on a multitude of influences including Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and African languages as well as Irish is heard on an everyday basis.

Contact between French- and English-lexified creoles is fairly common in the Lesser Antilles (apart from Saint Lucia), and can also be observed on Dominica, Saint Vincent, Carriacou, Petite Martinique and Grenada.[12]


Asian languages such as Chinese and Indian languages are spoken by South Asian expatriates and their descendents exclusively. In earlier historical times, other Indo-European languages (such as German,[13] could be found in northeastern parts of the Caribbean.

Language change and policy in the Caribbean[edit]

Throughout the long multilingual history of the Caribbean continent, Caribbean languages have been subject to phenomena like language contact, language expansion, language shift, and language death.[14] Two examples are the Spanish expansion, in which Spanish-speaking peoples expanded over most of central Caribbean, thereby displacing Arawak speaking peoples in much of the Caribbean, and the Creole expansion, in which Creole-speaking peoples expanded over several of islands. Another example is the English expansion in the 17th century, which led to the extension of English to much of the north and east Caribbean.

Trade languages are another age-old phenomenon in the Caribbean linguistic landscape. Cultural and linguistic innovations that spread along trade routes, and languages of peoples dominant in trade, developed into languages of wider communication (linguae francae). Of particular importance in this respect are French (in the central and east Caribbean) and Dutch (in the south and east Caribbean).

After gaining independence, many Caribbean countries, in the search for national unity, selected one language (generally the former colonial language) to be used in government and education. In recent years, Caribbean countries have become increasingly convinced of the importance of linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.[15]


Of the 38 million West Indians (as of 2001),[16] about 62% speak Spanish (a west Caribbean lingua franca). About 25% speak French, about 15% speak English (the lingua franca of the eastern Caribbean), and only 0.7% speak Dutch. Spanish, English, and French are important languages: 24 million, 9 million, and 5 million speak them as second languages.

The following is a list of major Caribbean languages (by total number of speakers)[needs updating]:

Country Population (2001) Official language Spoken languages
Anguilla 11,430 English English, Some Spanish
Antigua and Barbuda 66,970 English English, local dialects
Aruba 70,007 Dutch Papiamento, Dutch, English, Spanish
Bahamas 303,611 English English, Creole, Some French Creole
Barbados 275,330 English English, Some Portuguese Creole
Bay Islands, Honduras 49,151 Spanish Spanish, English, Some Creole, Some Garifuna
Bermuda 63,503 English English, Portuguese
Bonaire 14,230 Dutch Papiamento, Dutch, English, Spanish
British Virgin Islands 20,812 English English
Cayman Islands 40,900 English English
Cuba 11,217,100 Spanish Spanish, Some French Creole
Curaçao 130,000 Dutch Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish
Dominica 70,786 English English, French Creole, Some French
Dominican Republic 8,581,477 Spanish Spanish, Some French Creole, Some English
Grenada 89,227 English English, Creole, French Patois
Guadeloupe 431,170 French French, French Creole
Haiti 6,964,549 French, Creole French, French Creole, Some Spanish. Some English
Isla Cozumel 50,000 Spanish Spanish, Some English
Isla de Margarita 350,000 Spanish Spanish, Some English
Jamaica 2,665,636 English English, English Patois, Some Spanish
Martinique 418,454 French French, French Creole
Montserrat 7,574 English English
Puerto Rico 3,808,610 Spanish, English Spanish, English
Saba 1,704 Dutch English, Dutch
Saint Barthelemy 6,500 French French, French Creole, Some English
Saint Croix 53,234 English English
Saint John 4,197 English English
Saint Kitts and Nevis 38,756 English English
Saint Lucia 158,178 English English, French Creole, Some French
Saint Martin 27,000 French French, English, French Creole, Spanish
Saint Thomas 51,181 English English
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 115,942 English English, French Creole
Sint Eustatius 2,249 Dutch English, Dutch, Some Spanish
Sint Maarten 41,718 Dutch, English Dutch, English, Creole, Some Spanish
Trinidad and Tobago 1,169,682 English English, English Creole, French Patois, Some Spanish
Turks and Caicos Islands 18,122 English English, Spanish, French Creole

Linguistic features[edit]

Some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in the Caribbean, whereas others seem less common. Such shared traits probably are not due to a common origin of all Caribbean languages. Instead, some may be due to language contact (resulting in borrowing) and specific idioms and phrases may be due to a similar cultural background.


Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs for eg:" He dirty the floor. The use of juxtaposition to show possession as in English Creole, "John book" instead of Standard English, "John's book", the omission of the copula in structures such as "he sick" and "the boy reading". In Standard English, these examples would be rendered, 'he seems/appears/is sick' and "the boy is reading".


Quite often, only one term is used for both animal and meat; the word nama or nyama for animal/meat is particularly widespread in otherwise widely divergent Caribbean languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For Caribbean community see Commonwealth Caribbean and CARICOM
  2. ^ Using the 2001 census of the region.
  3. ^ Orjala, Paul Richard. (1970). A Dialect Survey Of Haitian Creole, Hartford Seminary Foundation. 226p.
  4. ^ Pompilus, Pradel. (1961). La langue française en Haïti. Paris: IHEAL. 278p
  5. ^ Ureland, P. Sture. (1985). 'Entstehung von Sprachen und Völkern'(Origins of Languages and Peoples). Tübingen
  6. ^ Amerindian Peoples’ Association.(2003). Guyana
  7. ^ Devonish, H., (Mar 2010) 'The Language Heritage of the Caribbean' Barbados: University of the West Indies
  8. ^ Lexifiers are languages of the former major colonial powers, whereas the grammatical structure is usually attributed to other languages spoken in the colonies, the so-called substrates.
  9. ^ Romaine, Suzanne (1988): Pidgin and creole languages. London: Longman, p.63
  10. ^ David, DeCamp. (1971) Pidgin and Creole Languages Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 13-39:351
  11. ^ see newspaper Civilisadó 1871-1875
  12. ^ Loftman, Beryl I. (1953). Creole Languages Of The Caribbean Area, New York: Columbia University
  13. ^ Schumann, Theophilus. (1748). Letters from Pilgerhut in Berbice to Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Berlin. A pilgim who, with help from a native Arawak, translated his German Bible into the native language.
  14. ^ Devonish, H. (2004). Languages disappeared in the Caribbean region, University of the West Indies
  15. ^ Taylor, Douglas. (1977). Languages of the West Indies, London: Johns Hopkins University Press
  16. ^ All population data is from The World Factbook estimates (July 2001) with these exceptions: Bay Islands, Cancun, Isla Cozumel, Isla de Margarita, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin (these were obtained by CaribSeek's own research. Anguilla, Bahamas, Cuba, Cayman Islands and the Netherlands Antilles population data are from the sources mentioned below, and are estimates for the year 2000.


  • Adelaar, Willem F. H. (2004). Languages of the Andes - The Arawakan languages of the Caribbean, Cambridge University Press 052136275X
  • Penny, Ralph John, (2002). A history of the Spanish language.
  • Gramley, Stephan., Pätzold, Kurt-Michael. (2003). A survey of modern English - The Languages of the Caribbean.
  • Appel, René., Muysken, Pieter. (2006). Language Contact and Bilingualism - Languages of the Caribbean
  • Patterson, Thomas C., Early colonial encounters and identities in the Caribbean
  • Sprauve, Gilbert A., (1990). Dutch Creole/English Creole distancing: historical and contemporary data considered, International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Vol 1990:85, pp41–50
  • Ferreira, Jas. (). Caribbean Languages and Caribbean Linguistics
  • Taylor, Douglas M., (1977) Languages of the West Indies, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Roberts,Peter. (1988). West Indians & their language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.