This paper is intended to shed light on the origins of the words “taíno” and “nitaíno,”which have been used, respectively, to represent the most dominant Indigenous group of the Caribbean region during the contact period (beginning in 1492) and supposed ruling class in the Taíno hierarchy. The target audience of this paper is laymen interested in the subject. That said, we believe that scholars may also benefit as we raise key questions and observations about the Caribbean and Cirum-Caribbean languages based on our research and interviews with Native Arawakan speakers.
Christopher Columbus’s travel logs offer us a miniscule glimpse of the very complex Caribbean world in which the Taíno people lived in 1492. Although biased and not very accurate, his logs are the earliest records of Indigenous Caribbean peoples and their cultures that we have, including what he noted about the Indigenous languages. Columbus was diligent in his descriptions of the things he saw, peoples he met, foods to which he was introduced, and words that he heard; however, his logs are inundated with mistakes, mostly based on cultural biases. For example, the Admiral wrote that the island of Cuba was a continent. On another occasion, he misunderstood and believed that the Cibao Valley was an island.
Europeans, for the most part, were unable to truly communicate with the natives, using mostly sign language and guesswork. This is particularly true during the initial voyages, which invariably set the stage for colonization. In some cases, Spaniards, not possessing names for things they encountered that were new to them, invented names based on things back in Europe that seemed similar.
Columbus believed he had landed on islands off the coast of India. As early as October 17, 1492, he began calling the Natives “Indios,” from which the name “Indian” derives. Subsequently all the Native Peoples of the Western Hemisphere came to be called Indians. In the Caribbean in particular, people are still referred to as Indio or Indio-colored. Caribbean Indians came to be known as the Taíno. This name has been steeped in controversy since its exact origins are unknown. Some claim that the name was coined by the Spaniards from a Taínan word they overheard, “nitaíno,” which they interpreted as meaning “noblemen.” Others believe that this name was first coined in the 1830s by C.S. Rafinuesque-Schmaltz, a self-educated Frenchman who wrote extensively on zoology and Meso-American languages. Still others maintain that “Taíno” is indeed the tribal name of the most dominant Indigenous group of the Caribbean. That is a claim, however, that is difficult to back up, since the people we call Taíno today were not one ethnic group, but rather composites of many different Indigenous, Arawakan-speaking peoples who had blended their cultural traits, values and beliefs, and their genes together in the region for more than 6,000 years.
Our aim is to explore some of these theories and offer our own interpretation of the words “taíno” and “nitaíno.” In addition, we hope to demonstrate that the modern name Taíno and its historical variants, “nitayno” or “tayno,” were the words the Indigenous peoples of the region used to identify themselves Caribbean-wide and are, indeed, applicable. Most importantly, we believe that the words did not refer to a noble class.
Our Classic Taíno ancestors did not have a written language, thus when studying the lexicon, morphology, and pronunciation of their languages, we can only rely on the various Spanish and other European spellings and interpretations or study their language comparatively using related Indigenous languages. Chroniclers, originating in various parts of Spain or Europe, undoubtedly spelled the Indigenous words that they heard phonetically via the vocal prisms and tones to which they were accustomed. Thus the same Indigenous word sounded different to a German speaker than it did to a French or Spanish speaker. Subsequently, the various European chroniclers also spelled the Indigenous words differently.
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